Truthout Stories Fri, 03 Jul 2015 19:39:45 -0400 en-gb What's Good About Guaranteed Basic Income

Writing check(Image: Writing check via Shutterstock)If conservatives really want to do away with "wasteful" and "overly bureaucratic" social services in the US - services like Medicaid, Social Security and foodstamps - there's an easy alternative.

It's simple. It encourages personal responsibility. And it will do away with our current mess of programs that make up our social safety net.

All we have to do is guarantee every person a universal, and unconditional, minimum income.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

It sounds unusual. It sounds like we'd just be paying people not to work. And why would anyone choose to work if they're receiving FREE money already?

That's the knee-jerk response - but it doesn't hold up in real-world experiments.

A paper published in 2013 looked at two groups in Uganda: one group that received a no-strings attached grant equal to their annual income - about 380 dollars per person - and a control group that received no grant.

What did the unemployed youth do when they were "paid not to work"?

The group that received the grant worked on average an extra 17 hours in comparison to the control group. They showed a 41 percent increase in earnings four years after receiving the grant.

They invested in skills and businesses. Individuals were 65 percent more likely to practice a skilled trade two years after receiving the grants.

Researchers have seen similar results from other experiments with unconditional income. In Kenya incomes increased by 33 percent and assets increased by 58 percent just one year after people received an unconditional $513 grant.

Those researchers also found that the grant reduced hunger and that the recipients were better off in terms of psychological well-being.

Which just makes sense. A guaranteed income lets households make a real budget and frees people from focusing only on where their next meal will come from.

Those are numbers that show that a guaranteed minimum income promotes economic productivity and real growth from the base of the market.

But those are just examples in the developing world. What about evidence from the world's developed countries?

Well, the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands will run its own experiment with basic minimum incomes.

Starting at the end of the summer, the city of Utrecht and University College Utrecht will give some welfare recipients a living income instead.

Instead of receiving welfare, individuals will receive a 900 euro monthly check, and a couple or a family will receive up to 1,300 euros.

According to the Alderman for Work and Income, Victor Everhardt, the questions at the core of the experiment are: "What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone sit passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?"

Based on what we've seen in similar experiments in Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, South Africa and Mexico: People will develop themselves and contribute to real economic growth and the wealth of the nation.

People want to contribute. They want to be productive members of society.

The problem in the US, and in many other parts of the world, is that the majority of workers have to work just to survive.

And again, the knee-jerk reactions is that that's how it should be, or at least that's what billionaires who inherited their fortunes say!

But that mentality goes against the core notion of having an inalienable right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

When are individuals supposed to pursue happiness in a society where both parents in a household have to work two or three jobs with constantly changing schedules - just to pay the rent and keep the water running?

How are people supposed to start businesses based on their own talents and innovation if they are working dead-end jobs that require and teach no skills - just to keep food on the table?

How can anyone invest their hard earned money into a start-up business or just into savings - if every cent of their income goes to just the bare essentials?

Providing a guaranteed minimum income makes people freer and more able to participate in society. And that translates to a freer market where more people are able and willing to participate.

"Where does the money come from?!" the conservatives will shriek.

Why don't we ask Sarah Palin and the good people of Alaska?

Alaska collects royalties on oil that's extracted within the state, those royalties go to the state's Permanent Fund, and then that fund pays out about $1,800 a year to every man, woman and child in the state.

So a good start would be to charge fossil fuel companies royalties for extracting resources on federal and state land, and to close the loopholes that companies use to avoid paying those royalties right now.

Then you cut the $52 billion that we give out to those companies in subsidies, and there's a real basis for a US permanent fund.

Combine that basis with the savings from eliminating the rest of the social safety net, and there's more than enough money for every man woman and child to not just survive - but to contribute meaningfully to our economy and society.

So the next time a conservative tells you about government waste and fraud with Medicaid and foodstamps, just remind them.

We could eliminate every single social welfare program and streamline our social safety net if we simply set up a guaranteed minimum income based on living wages around the country.

Opinion Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:16:31 -0400
Slavery, Genocide, Abuse: The Dark Side of Asia's "Tiger Economies"

A few years ago, Southeast Asia's rapidly growing "tiger economies" were the envy of the world. Today, the area is better known for a trio of maladies: ethnic cleansing, burgeoning inequality, and super-exploited labor.

The sorry state of human rights and labor protections in the region has been driven home by three events that captured the world's attention.

On the high seas, thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar found themselves stranded and desperate when neighboring states refused to accept them. In Indonesia, investigators discovered illegal fish factories run by captive migrant laborers. And last May in the Philippines, 72 workers perished in a horrific factory fire.

As the Association of Southeast Asian States, or ASEAN, prepares to integrate the region's economies by the end of 2015, it's worth asking what it is these countries will be combining - their markets or their deep-seated social problems?

Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar

The plight of the Rohingya is the culmination of three years of riots and violent attacks directed at Burma's Muslim minority, who make up over 30 percent of the population in the state of Rakhine.

Tensions between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority have been building for years. With the easing of military control as the country makes its jerky transition to democracy, friction has given way to violence, oftentimes sparked by wild allegations of Rohingya men raping Buddhist women.

Burmese authorities officially consider the 1.3 million Rohingya to be stateless intruders from neighboring Bangladesh, largely abandoning them to the tender mercies of Buddhist mobs often led by monks. The result has been the region's worst case of ethnic cleansing in modern memory.

To escape brutal persecution, many Rohingya have increasingly resorted to flight, contracting smugglers and traffickers to bring them by sea and land to other countries. This option has turned out to be as perilous as staying. Traffickers have sold many Rohingya, along with other Burmese, as forced labor to the notorious Thai fishing industry. Others are met with hostile receptions from neighboring countries.

Last month, an estimated 7,000 Rohingya refugees crammed into fragile boats bound for friendlier shores. Yet they were repelled by the Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies and left floating aimlessly in the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea.

Under pressure from the United Nations and other international bodies, Myanmar's neighbors eventually softened their stance toward the refugees. The Philippines opened its borders to some. And after heavy criticism, so did Malaysia and Indonesia - if only grudgingly. Thailand, however, made clear it would not offer asylum to any of them, a hardline stance also adopted by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Voices from all over the globe, including the United Nations General Assembly, have called on the Myanmar government to end the ethnic cleansing and give citizenship rights to the Rohingya. One voice, however, has been notably silent: Nobel Prize laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

Never in the last three years has the famed pro-democracy advocate spoken on behalf of the Rohingya, even if only to ask her Buddhist compatriots to stop persecuting them. Owing to international pressure, her party, the National League for Democracy, has - finally and grudgingly - called for citizenship for the Rohingya. But the statement was not issued in her name.

Observers speculate that Suu Kyi hopes to avoid offending the country's Buddhist majority, whose votes her party needs in Burma's coming electoral contests - and which she herself will need if she runs for president. But the longer "Daw Suu" stays silent, the more people will conclude that she doesn't believe the Rohingya deserve to be citizens either - and the more this global moral icon will be regarded as complicit in genocide.

Slave Labor in Thailand's Fishing Industry

This March, a superb Associated Press report on forced labor on the Indonesian island of Benjina called the world's attention to one of Southeast Asia's unspoken dirty secrets: the dependence of the Thai fishing industry on slavery. Over 500 workers were found imprisoned on the island.

The resort to slave labor, according to a report by the International Labor Organization and Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, comes as profits are being squeezed by smaller catches, higher fuel costs, and the reluctance of Thai nationals to work in a low-paying, hazardous industry involving long periods at sea.

So Thai fishing and canning factories have turned to foreign workers - especially from Burma and Cambodia, where smuggling networks have sprung up to recruit workers. Deception is almost invariably involved, with prospective workers promised higher-paying construction or agriculture jobs only to be sold to fishing vessels, where they work for a pittance or nothing at all.

The traffickers treat these undocumented workers with extreme brutality. Recently discovered mass graves - reportedly containing the remains of hundreds of people along smuggling routes in Thailand and Malaysia - bear mute testimony to what happens to those who get sick, suffer accidents, or resist.

Government officials are often worse than useless. As the ILO-Chulalongkorn report notes, "The direct involvement and/or facilitation of law enforcement officials in these crimes is a significant problem that has remained inadequately addressed. Although authorities reportedly investigated several cases of complicity by law enforcement officials during 2011-2012, no prosecutions or convictions were carried through." Not surprisingly, "rather than seeking out protection for abuses or filing complaints to the proper authorities, many migrant fishers will choose to keep quiet out of fear of blacklisting, arrest, or deportation."

The highly publicized recent arrest of a three-star Thai general for human trafficking underlines how deeply government officials are involved in the business. Yet few anticipate that he'll be successfully prosecuted.

A Decimated Working Class in the Philippines

Government complicity was also instrumental in the Philippines' worst-ever factory fire last May.

In interviews with some 30 survivors, I learned that both national and local authorities had issued safety clearances for the Kentex footwear factory, despite the fact that it had no emergency exits, the windows were barred, no fire drills were conducted, and no serious fire inspections were carried out. The obviously lax enforcement of safety regulations is not accidental. Kentex incarnates the Philippine government's lenient treatment of the capitalist enterprises it sees as a source of growth, wealth, and jobs.

According to the survivors, some 20 percent of the workforce at the factory consisted of casual workers or "pakyawan," including some minors brought in by their mothers to earn some extra money for the family over the summer. They received about $4.50 for a day's work, or less than half the current minimum wage for the national capital region.

Another 40 to 60 percent were contractual workers recruited by a "manpower agency," an organization devised to allow employers to avoid regularizing workers who might otherwise vote to form a union. While these non-unionized workers received the minimum daily wage, the agency skimmed off the required social security, health, and housing benefits provided by the employer. "They don't pay our monthly installments," one survivor angrily told me.

At the most, 20 percent of the workers were regular employees who belonged to a union. But as one of the union members himself volunteered cynically, "We are a company union."

A Secret No Longer

Kentex is a microcosm of labor-capital relations in Southeast Asia today.

The trend toward contractualization - pushed by local and foreign investors, accommodated by governments, and legitimized by economists - has led to the disorganization and de-unionization of the labor force, which in turn makes rights abuses and disasters all the more likely. Today, only about 10 percent of the Philippine work force is organized, with one prominent labor leader admitting, "Ironically, labor unions are not as politically strong today as during the dictatorial regime of President Marcos."

In his "State of the Nation" address last year, President Benigno Aquino III boasted that there were only two worker strikes in 2013 and just one in 2014. That the president considered this news positive only showed how detached from reality he was, for the radical reduction of the number of strikes doesn't come from improving living standards but from the weakening of labor's bargaining power. It comes from pro-management government policies, a widespread failure to enforce labor laws, and aggressive union-busting by employers.

Some labor leaders see a silver lining in the Kentex tragedy. "The 72 lives lost were a terrible, terrible loss," said Josua Mata, secretary general of the labor federation Sentro. "But if this tragedy brings to the national consciousness the unacceptable state to which management and government have reduced our workers and inaugurates an era of reform, then their sacrifice might not be in vain."

That remains to be seen. But when it comes to declining workers' rights, violent labor trafficking, and ethnic cleansing, no one can say the dark underbelly of the "tiger economies" is a secret any longer.

News Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:27:45 -0400
John Repp on the Promise of Public Banking in Seattle

In 2008, dismayed by the role played by large, private banks in the financial meltdown, a group of Washington state residents began advocating for a state-sponsored public bank like the only state-owned bank in the United States, the Bank of North Dakota. When their movement failed to gain traction in the state legislature, they shifted their focus to Seattle. Today, the Seattle Public Bank Coalition educates local policymakers and the public about the capacity of public banks to provide robust banking services while returning profits to the community.

John Repp has been active in the campaign to start a Seattle municipal bank from the beginning. Last month I spoke to him via Skype about the benefits of public banking, the nature of local debate on the subject, and the state of the public banking movement in Seattle. Our discussion revealed what a practical solution public banking is for Seattle and other cash-strapped cities.

Tell me about the Seattle Public Bank Coalition.

In December 2008, I read an article in YES! Magazine by Ellen Brown, who had been writing about and leading the public banking effort in this country. My wife and I were members of a study group called Just Sustainable Economy. I talked to the group about it, and wrote letters to state officials. At that time, we were focusing on the state of Washington.

About a year later, I talked to Bob Hasegawa. He is a state representative from the 11th District. He already knew about the Bank of North Dakota, and knew about public banking. He asked me to write a bill - that was kind of scary. But I got a copy of the legislation that established the Bank of North Dakota, and I had some help from people in the national public banking [movement].

For five years we had bills in the Washington state legislature. The second year, I think, we had 44 co-sponsors, including the support of the Speaker of the House. But we couldn't get it through the committee. The chair of the committee was a centrist Democrat, and he wouldn't let it through.

So after five years - and with Hasegawa's okay - we decided to focus on Seattle and the Seattle City Council. There are nine [councilmembers], so we only had to convince five - instead of 51. There, we found Nick Licata to be our champion. He's been working with us for about a year. That's where we are now.

We've had different people in and out of our group over the last seven years. Some of the people who are not in Seattle have peeled away for now. But in the progressive community, [public banking] is a very popular idea.

I might add that one of the pieces of literature we circulate is from a group in California who puts out "Occucards." The cards talk about issues like climate change and debt. Interestingly, their public banking card - number 20 - is the only one that focuses on a positive proposal.

And our local Occupy movement: when they realized that Seattle was banking with Wells Fargo, they went to the city council and put some pressure on them to at least more tightly regulate what the bank does with the city's money.

Why public banking?

As you well know, the private banking system, based in Wall Street, nearly collapsed the world economy in 2008. A study of the economic history of Europe and the United States shows that this type of economic crisis happens at least once every generation. Actually, the longest time we didn't have one was after the New Deal, when our banking system was very tightly regulated. It was when they got rid of Glass-Steagall during the Clinton administration that the problems began.

That's the big background. I've been interested in the economy for a long time, but I didn't really understand the central role [played by] banking, and how it worked, and the possible abuses under the private system when not tightly regulated. And, of course, I think the banking system now is almost 20 percent of our economy. That's too big. Manufacturing used to be a lot bigger; now it's smaller, since we've exported jobs.

Forty percent of the banking around the world is done through public banking. We had a forum in December - you'll see some press reports from the forum on our website. [Thomas Keidel] came over from Germany and talked about the public banking system they have there, the Sparkasse savings banks. They're a full-service bank, where people can come and get savings accounts, checking accounts, and loans. They're a retail bank.

Our model, the Bank of North Dakota, is a banker's bank. One of our biggest [challenges is that] we've not been able [to convince] the community banking system that this would be a good thing for them. If they would look at the Bank of North Dakota, they would see that the Bank of North Dakota is like a Federal Reserve for the community banking system. It backs them up. [The community banks] are the ones that actually make most of the loans. Then the Bank of North Dakota either writes letters of credit, or buys the loans so that the community bank, which knows the customers better, can make more loans.

We want our bank to be run by bankers. It's not meant to be a lender of last resort. It's not meant to be a place where politicians get their favorite projects funded. It's meant to be a bank that would fund, for lower interest, projects for which the big banks would be happy to carry the loan.

Why is a public bank a good fit for Seattle, in particular?

JR: Seattle, like other cities, is strapped for money. We're the fastest-growing city in the country, and we need to build infrastructure to support that growth. We would  also like to build more affordable housing, and create good family-wage jobs.

We are close to our debt limit. Because Seattle and Washington state have the most regressive tax systems, we're constantly having to go to the levy system to get more money, or borrow it. We've borrowed [billions of] dollars. Big banks, mostly, have bought those bonds - they loaned the money to us.

So even though Seattle is prosperous compared to Detroit, or Baltimore, it still has a lot of needs.

How would a Seattle public bank work?

To start a public bank in Seattle, we would need a capital investment. We see that coming from the investments that Seattle already makes, mostly in savings treasury bonds and CDs. I think [they are valued at] about $800 million. We're only getting 0.67 percent [interest] on those investments right now - that's not much of a return.

We're thinking some of that investment money [could be used to start the bank]. It takes at least $100 million - but the more robust, the better. We could get a much higher rate of return through our own bank.

That makes the politicians a bit nervous. Our biggest opponent at the state level was the State Treasurer, whose job is to invest the money not immediately needed by the state. If there were a state bank, his office would shrink to a few employees, because the [public] bank would be doing that. He didn't like that. But that's not the reason he said that he was against it.

[It represents] a reorganization of how the city uses its finances. So the people involved in the way it's done now don't want to make the change, even though the arguments [in favor of a public bank] are pretty strong.

The deposits at the bank are the taxes and fees that come into the [city]. And, of course, Seattle has business-type activities. They have the water, and the utilities; they have a downtown garage, they have affordable housing. So the Seattle public bank would be another business-type activity.

It would be regulated by the state. The employees of the bank would be civil service employees - they would not be getting bonuses like the private bankers do. And it would be tightly regulated.

[Here's] the interesting thing about the Bank of North Dakota. People hardly believe this, but North Dakota did not suffer from the credit crisis. Their unemployment rate was about two percent during the worst part of the crisis. Of course, people now think it was the oil boom. But the oil boom came after the crash.

The [real] reason is that the Bank of North Dakota was standing behind the community banks. The Bank of North Dakota has been in business for ninety-some years. They were focused on old-fashioned conservative banking: loaning money to businesses that had a good plan; loaning money to farmers who needed to buy seed and fertilizer in the spring; loaning money to people to buy houses; and loaning money to students.

Old-fashioned stuff. They weren't involved in any of the derivatives, or credit default swaps, that Wall Street was pushing all over the country. And if you think about it, we don't want our bankers to be creative. We want them to be conservative. It's a conservative state, and it's a conservative model.

Even though we're seen by some of the politicians as radicals or reformers, we actually want the system to be more old-fashioned, more conservative.

Another thing: the loan portfolio of the bank. It could be done through the community banking system. It could be done through loaning money to other jurisdictions, like Seattle City Light or the water department, just like the bonds are done now. You put out the loan, and then the principal and interest comes back. The interest would be the profit of the bank. That would go either to expand the bank, or it could go back into the Seattle General Fund.

[For] the last few years the Bank of North Dakota has not returned money to the general fund of North Dakota. But from 1998 to 2008, it did return $300 million to the general fund. [Since 2008] - I believe because their infrastructure needs are so great, with the oil boom - the Bank of North Dakota has kept the profits, and expanded quite a bit. [It's become] one of the most profitable banks in the country.

We've talked to retired Bank of North Dakota bankers. And we talked to people from North Dakota who got their education [loans] through the bank - the Bank of North Dakota was one of the first that loaned money to students.

I'd like to hear more about the local debate regarding a municipal public bank.

At one point, Bob Hasegawa said, "When I talk to ordinary people, after a few sentences describing this idea, they say, 'That's great!'" And there are a fair amount of people from North Dakota living in this area, so they know about it.

But when you talk to politicians or policymakers, their eyes glaze over. We think it's because they know who the real power in society is: it's the bankers and the large corporations. They don't want to buck that power.

[Recently] I was at a city council candidates' forum for the two at-large positions. They were asked if they would support a Seattle municipal bank, and they all said yes - except the incumbent, Tim Burgess. He said he didn't know anything about the Bank of North Dakota. So we have some work to do with him.

What we are doing as SPBC right now is to try to get all the candidates for city council to learn about the bank, and endorse the idea. After our December 2014 forum, Nick Licata said the next step would be a request to Seattle City Council to get some money to study this. [But] that's been stopped. [Licata] told us that the legal department has some questions about it - whether this was legal.

So now they're working on the idea of Seattle taking some of its investment money and putting it in a fund to loan out to build affordable housing. But that would be what they call a revolving fund, and it would not have the leverage of a bank.

Among other things, the legal question [has to do with] three clauses in the Washington state constitution that say that the state cannot lend its credit - they don't say lend its money, they say lend its credit - to private parties. The case law on those three clauses [indicates that] if it's in the public interest, then it can be done.

The state and the city already loan money out to private parties, through the revolving funds. Again, they're not banks. But if you think about it, the bank would be loaning out the principal, and then receiving back the principal and interest - so it is in the public interest. Not to mention the jobs that would be created, the new businesses that could be created.

We think there's a strong case [in favor of a public bank being legal]. A former [Washington] Supreme Court justice agrees with us. (He's in private practice now, so he doesn't want to write a brief to that effect). We think the city or the state should go ahead and establish a public bank. There's going to be a challenge anyway, from the opponents. The private banking system really doesn't want any competition.

So that's where we are. The city council candidates are quite open, and if they don't know much about it, they'll ask, and be willing to learn. We have people in most of the districts who are showing up at the forums, and we have communicated with all of the candidates, and gotten some replies.

Are you doing any outreach to the general public?

At the beginning, we went to a lot of Democratic Party district meetings, and we went to some church meetings. We even went to a Rotary meeting once. At some public events we leaflet and talk to people. It's pretty well-known among the progressive community, but that's a small community, unfortunately.

Other than our website, and leaflets, we don't have a lot of resources. We're not a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4), we don't have a lot of [resources]. It's an ad hoc network.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

There's a lot of residual anger about what happened to our economy, caused by the banks. And the fact that they were bailed out, and the people weren't. They convinced the president that the only solution was shoring up these banks, when that was not the only solution.

They could have nationalized these banks, they could have broken up these banks, they could have taken a lot of that money to start rebuilding our infrastructure, and start pushing us in the direction of getting off of fossil fuels. Of course, there was a lot of pushback from the banks and the oil companies.

But that's really where I'd like to see our country go, and the sooner the better. A public bank could help fund a green and sustainable economy. In Germany, they've made so much progress on rooftop solar. And they did it because of two things. One, you could get a mortgage to do that. Second, you would have an agreement with the local utility to buy back your power for twenty years at a certain price. So it actually costs you nothing; you end up making money right away.

That kind of situation could happen here, and a public bank could be part of that effort. The German manufacturing sector, which is very vital, has not exported its jobs all over the world. A lot of [the manufacturing companies] are smaller family businesses. From time to time they need credit, and they go to the [public banks]. We hear about Siemens, we hear about Mercedes Benz - the big companies. But the heart of German manufacturing is smaller businesses. And they have been able to survive, and to resist offers to sell to bigger corporations, because they have a public bank standing behind them.

News Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:27:20 -0400
EPA's New Fracking Study: A Close Look at the Numbers Buried in the Fine Print

When EPA's long-awaited draft assessment on fracking and drinking water supplies was released, the oil and gas industry triumphantly focused on a headline-making sentence: "We did not find evidence of widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."

But for fracking's backers, a sense of victory may prove to be fleeting.

EPA's draft assessment made one thing clear: fracking has repeatedly contaminated drinking water supplies (a fact that the industry has long aggressively denied).

Indeed, the federal government's recognition that fracking can contaminate drinking water supplies may prove to have opened the floodgates, especially since EPA called attention to major gaps in the official record, due in part to gag orders for landowners who settle contamination claims and in part because there simply hasn't been enough testing to know how widespread problems have become.

And although it's been less than a month since EPA's draft assessment was released, the evidence on fracking's impacts has continued to roll in.

A study in Texas' Barnett shale found high levels of pollutants - volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and known carcinogens - in many people's drinking water, based on testing from over 500 water wells. The contaminants found were associated with the shale drilling industry, but the researchers cautioned it was too soon to say whether the industry actually caused the contamination.

But the association was strong, the researchers said. "In the counties where there is more unconventional oil and gas development, the chemicals are worse," lead researcher Zachariah Hildenbrand told Inside Climate News. "They're in water in higher concentrations and more prevalent among the wells. As you get away from the drilling, water quality gets better. There's no doubt about it."

Those who might have hoped that EPA's national study would help resolve questions swirling around fracking were largely disappointed, saying that EPA's new draft assessment is largely a review of the current literature. EPA also heavily relied on data that was self-reported by drillers to FracFocus or to various states, leaving open questions about whether the accident rates they found are in fact under-stated.

Historically, the executive summary from EPA's assessments on the oil and gas industry has provided a much rosier picture than the details included in the body of the report. And a close look at EPA's new draft assessment reveals some striking results that haven't made headlines.

EPA couldn't say with certainty how many fracked wells there are in the US, nor could it say how much wastewater was produced from fracking. They could say that overall, the oil and gas industry is producing billions of gallons of wastewater a day - hundreds of billions of gallons per year - but couldn't say how much of that was tied to fracking.

Roughly a third of America's newly fracked wells that EPA could find were drilled in densely populated areas - either metropolitan areas or what the EPA calls "micropolitan" centers, where over ten thousand people live close together (p. 109).

Wells have been fracked as little as 0.01 miles away from a public drinking water supply, which supplies homes that do not use well water (p. 111) But despite how close fracking is to people's homes and public drinking water supplies, the EPA admitted it knows shockingly little about how risky the chemicals used are to human health (p. 38).

Meanwhile, accidents keep on happening, both above-ground and under, by the hundreds or thousands. One in a dozen spills by drillers wasn't contained before it hit drinking water sources - and the spills that hit water supplies tended to be much larger spills than those that didn't (p. 38). Although gas wells are generally depicted as having numerous layers of concrete and steel casings to prevent the gas, wastewater and chemicals inside the well from interacting with the environment outside it, two thirds of wells had no cement along some portions of their bores (p. 275), an EPA review found. And conditions underground, which can leave wells under high pressure, high temperatures or in "corrosive environments" sometimes caused well casings to have "life expectancies" that run out in under a decade (p. 281) - but the oil and gas industry has told investors that shale wells are expected to keep pumping for 30 years or more.

Here's a look at more of the evidence that's buried in the fine print on the EPA's study.

First and foremost, fracked wells can contaminate underground drinking water supplies and there are multiple documented cases where that has occurred. The EPA's assessment, for example, concluded that in Pennsylvania, "in some cases, the methane [found in drinking water wells] appears to have originated from deeper layers such as those where the Marcellus Shale is found." The agency also cited cases of water contamination tied to the Vermejo coalbeds in Colorado's Raton basin. (See p. 284-5 of the report). 

In fact, at the five sites EPA selected for its retrospective studies, they found problems everywhere and most of the time, the only available explanation was fracking. An aquifer was contaminated with wastewater and tert-butyl alcohol in North Dakota and EPA concluded that the only possible cause was a blow-out during fracking; in Northeastern PA, where gas is often naturally found in water supplies, 9 out of the 36 wells EPA analyzed were newly contaminated due to fracking activities (25%); salty groundwater contamination in Southwestern PA likely came from a fracking wastewater pit; in two of the drinking wells EPA studied in Wise County, TX, the only explanation consistent with the EPA found contamination was brines from fracked rock layers and a third drinking well may have also been similarly polluted; and in Raton Basin, CO, EPA found pollution but couldn't "definitively" link it to the coalbed fracking done in the area.

The agency also cited examples of lesser-known problems elsewhere in the US. For example, "[i]n Bainbridge, Ohio, inadequately cemented casing in a hydraulically fractured well contributed to the buildup of natural gas and high pressures along the outside of a production well," EPA said (p. 40-41). "This ultimately resulted in movement of natural gas into local drinking water aquifers."

At least 12.2 million people live or drink water from within a mile of a fracked well, but that is almost certainly an under-count because EPA couldn't locate all the wells that were fracked. (p. 31-32; 116) Tens of thousands of new wells are drilled and fracked every year, EPA found, and half of the states in the country have now been fracked. So even if problems occur a small percent of the time, vast numbers of individual people could be impacted.

And companies have been allowed to frack using over a thousand different chemicals nationwide even though scientists have a very poor understanding of the ways that they affect people (p. 176). Little is known about the human health effects for the vast majority of the chemicals used in fracking, a problem that EPA labeled "a significant data gap for hazard identification." The risks of long-term exposure were not know for 92% of the chemicals used during fracking (p. 38). Much also remains unknown about the health risks associated with 38-48 percent of the naturally-occurring materials that get mixed in with injected fluids underground, though more is known about these than the chemicals deliberately used by drillers.

The few chemicals whose health risks have been studied can have severe impacts on people's bodies, causing cancer, kidney, brain and liver problems, and pose harm to developing fetuses and babies (though EPA cautioned that so little is known about the more commonly used chemicals that it wasn't clear what risks an average well might pose) (p. 39).

This means that people whose health is harmed could have a hard time tying their ailments to fracking in court, because the science has lagged so far behind. It also makes it hard for regulators to know what chemicals are riskier or how best to prevent people from getting sick.

Although the oil and gas industry often focuses on "best practices" in describing how the modern shale rush has used emerging technology, even basic precautions are not routinely taken. Roughly 3 percent of fracked wells in one part of North Dakota - in other words, hundreds of wells per year - were deliberately built short on the well casings that are designed to protect drinking water supplies. And without enough casing, the risk of contamination spikes 1,000- fold, EPA noted (p. 39).

Much has been made of the long distances that fracking chemicals would have to travel to move from shale layers buried sometimes thousands of feet below the surface to the depths that people's drinking water wells reach. But it turns out that twenty percent of fracked wells are considered "shallow," which means that fracking happens much closer to drinking water supplies, EPA found (p. 41).

And, in a practice that has gotten very little attention, drilling companies are sometimes deliberately fracking directly into drinking water supplies. "The practice of injecting fracturing fluids into a formation that also contains a drinking water resource directly affects the quality of that water, since some of the fluid likely remains in the formation following hydraulic fracturing," EPA wrote. "Hydraulic fracturing in a drinking water resource is a concern in the short-term (should there be people currently using these zones as a drinking water supply) and the long-term (if drought or other conditions necessitate the future use of these zones for drinking water" (p. 41).

Of course, it's not just problems underground that cause contamination.

No one knows how much wastewater from fracking is produced nationwide, EPA reported, because states don't consistently track the industry's waste. This means there is no reliable way of knowing what percentage of wastewater winds up injected, dumped, spilled, deliberately evaporated in evaporation ponds, sent to treatment plants, sprayed on roads, or otherwise handled or mishandled. The amount of wastewater from a given well can be millions of gallons - sometimes even more than companies pumped in, or sometimes up to 90 percent of what's inject remains below ground, EPA said.

Sewage treatment plants cannot handle fracking wastewater, and there is no evidence proving that commercial wastewater treatment plants can handle it either (p. 46).

Hundreds or thousands of chemical or wastewater spills can be expected annually, and an average spill is over 400 gallons (picture eight 50-gallon drums), EPA found, despite limited reporting. About one in ten spills reached surface waters, and nearly two thirds soaked into the ground. "These spills tended to be of greater volume than spills that did not reach a water body," EPA noted (p.45).

Unlined wastewater storage pits can create "plumes" in underground water supplies, when fluids seep down through the soil into aquifers, and those plumes can create problems for a very long time and even reach nearby lakes, rivers or streams, EPA reported (p. 45).

And as droughts extend across much of the US, the sheer amount of water consumed by fracking - often permanently removed from the water cycle - also impacts America's drinking water supplies. In some counties, fracking consumes more than half of all the water that is used annually, based on the industry's own self-reporting, EPA noted (p. 35).

Problems underground have also dogged the fracking industry, and evidence is growing despite the complex and expensive technical problems that confront investigators into specific incidents.

Modern fracking techniques, where 10 or more wells are drilled from the same pad, may increase the risks of groundwater contamination, EPA found. In some parts of Oklahoma, fractures from two different wells accidentally crossed each other nearly half of the time. When this happens, fluids pumped down into one well can erupt out of a different well, causing fracking-fluid spills at ground-level (p. 42).

These risks are especially high if one of the over 1 million wells that were drilled and abandoned "prior to a formal regulatory structure" turns out to have been nearby (but that's hard to anticipate because "the status and location of many of these wells are unknown" (p. 42).

About 1,380 wells over a decade old were fracked in 2009 and 2010, despite concerns that older wells were not tested to withstand modern fracking techniques. "The EPA estimated that 6% of 23,000 oil and gas production wells were drilled more than 10 years before being hydraulically fractured in 2009 or 2010. Although new wells can be designed to withstand the stresses associated with hydraulic fracturing operations, older wells may not have been built or tested to the same specifications and their reuse for this purpose could be of concern. Moreover, aging and use of the well can contribute to casing degradation, which can be accelerated by exposure to corrosive chemicals, such as hydrogen sulfide, carbonic acid, and brines." (p. 41)

While all of this shows EPA's baseline for talking about fracking's impacts, there are many reasons to believe that the agency's numbers represent just the tip of the iceberg. In its executive summary, EPA acknowledged that its numbers "may be an underestimate as a result of several factors," citing a lack of available data (p. 50).

EPA's study also took a narrow approach and left out many issues related to fracking, including problems that emerge during drilling or constructing well pads (even at sites where fracking is necessary to get the well to begin producing oil and gas), the impacts of mining of sand used as proppant, and what happens to wells once they stop producing oil and gas and are abandoned. Early plans to study air emissions and other effects were also dropped.

And of course, since the assessment is only a draft, it is still open for public comment. Public meetings and teleconferences to discuss EPA's findings are scheduled for this fall.

News Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:19:48 -0400
Flagging Hate Speech

I've spent my whole life in the Northeast, but I have Southern roots. My late grandfather came from a long line of sharecroppers who toiled in the fields of Decatur, Georgia for generations. Their history of hardship was common in the South.

Where my grandfather grew up, poor whites often blamed their misfortune on the only group of people less fortunate than they: black people. For these marginalized whites, the Confederate battle flag came to symbolize what might have been.

To me, the Confederate battle flag represents the dehumanization of black people. Renewed calls to banish it from public spaces across the South pit a national drive to stamp out prejudice against the region's pride in its history - even if that particular history is nothing to be proud of.

Many Southerners insist that the emblem merely salutes Southern heritage. But lynch mobs have never rallied behind sweet tea and collard greens.

Separatist flags signified white defiance during the Civil War. A century later, they were embraced by the millions of whites who refused to acknowledge black people's rights amid the racist backlash against the civil rights movement.

Dylann Roof, who was fond of photographing himself with the rebel flag, made his sentiments clear when he allegedly murdered nine African Americans in a historically black Charleston church. Extremist groups that burn crosses on front lawns, set black churches on fire, and commit violent hate crimes often fly the same banner.

Confederate flags, in short, epitomize white supremacy.

In the Charleston tragedy's wake, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the Confederate battle flag to be taken down from state property. As far as Haley is concerned, South Carolinians should retain the right to fly the flag on their own property, but "the State House is different."

Most South Carolina lawmakers agree, though the flag still flew as President Barack Obama delivered a rousing eulogy for the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney - the most prominent of the nine people killed in Charlestown.

Alabama governor Robert Bentley banned the flag from his state's capitol. Other states, like Mississippi, are considering whether to drop Confederate symbols from their state flags. Virginia and Georgia are phasing out their Confederate-themed specialty license plates.

What exactly are they waiting for?

How many more churches must be spattered with bullets, or set on fire, before more Southern politicians admit that Confederate flags represent hatred and incite violence? It shouldn't have taken 150 years - and the recent deaths of nine innocent churchgoers - for Southern states to renounce this symbol.

Furling those flags won't bring back lives or end systemic racism. But it will send a message that our state governments at least reject symbols of racist brutality.

As states remove the flag from public property, they should raise up the ideals of liberty and equal rights. Southern governments have an opportunity to shatter their racist reputations and prove that Southern hospitality is second to none.

Opinion Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:19:14 -0400
What Happens When Oligarchs and Vigilantes Take Over Public Safety in a Big City

Detroit, MI.Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

Highland Park is a tiny 3-square-mile municipality located within Detroit. Extremely dangerous, blighted, and 94% black, Highland Park is a concentrated example of the conditions in Detroit's poorest neighborhoods-what some call the "Detroit of Detroit."

In late 2011, the impoverished little municipality was so deep in debt to its public electric company, DTE Energy, that the local government was forced to decommission all streetlights on its residential streets. Not only did DTE cut the power to street lights in Highland Park, it sent out workers to physically dig up and remove nearly 1,000 light-poles from the neighborhood. Highland Parkers now live in permanent, debt-induced darkness.

Six miles away, in Detroit's rapidly gentrifying downtown area, DTE Energy runs a very different public policy. The same company that repossessed 1,000 streetlights from Highland Park, condemning its residents to permanent darkness, has recently launched a pro-bono security program in the increasingly white area.

On its own dime, DTE operates a public "bait car" program. It buys and sets booby-trap cars out on the downtown streets, outfitted with up to 18 hidden cameras, to lure and ultimately deter potential car theft. A partnership with downtown police assures that cops will be on the scene within 90 seconds of when the bait car is entered.

"We want to be part of something good about changing perceptions of the city of Detroit," DTE's chief security officer boasts of the bait-car program, "We want to be part of the revitalization of the city."

Safety is a privilege in Detroit. Like all privileges, it gravitates toward the white and wealthy.

Decades of budget cuts to public safety services alongside concentrated investment downtown has created two Detroits: downtown, white and professional, bathed in state-of-the-art private security; and the "neighborhoods," poor and black, where public safety has become a do-it-yourself endeavor.

Turning out the Lights

In Detroit's black neighborhoods, public safety has been sacrificed to the gods of austerity. With the city government too poor provide basic security, safety has become a private commodity, accessible to the wealthy, but far out of reach for the majority of Detroiters.

The slow but massive exodus of capital and residents over the last half-century has left the Motor City broken down and overgrown in municipal debt. By the time Detroit faced its financial day of reckoning in bankruptcy court, years of budget cuts had already dismantled its most basic public services-police, fire, even streetlights-to barely functional levels.

The steady, long-term disinvestment in public safety shows through in crime rates.

In a given week, Detroit averages seven murders, 226 burglaries, 92 robberies, 169 aggravated assaults, 228 cars stolen, 331 larceny thefts, 12 rapes, and 279 violent crimes - the vast majority occurring in the neighborhoods and leading to no arrests. These dark accolades have earned Detroit the most dangerous city in America honor five out of the last seven years.

Absurdly underfunded emergency services are unable to keep up with the city's record crime. In 2013, the same year Detroit led the country with 333 homicides, its police department took a $75 million- or 18% - overall haircut. Emergency Medical Services has taken similar hits. In 2005, Detroit had 303 paramedics working the streets. By 2010, the working paramedic count was cut to 188 to match a shrinking budget. The result: laughably bad 911 response times.

In a city that is perpetually on fire, the poverty of the Detroit Fire Department is the stuff that writes books. Two years ago, Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff shadowed a fire company and found pathetic underfunding. Even the fire alarm in the firehouse was broken. Since no one had come to fix it, the men had to jerry-rig a contraption where the paper pushed out of a fax machine set off a Rube Goldberg series involving a door-hinge, a screw, and an electric pad to finally ring the alarm bell.

So exists the department facing the highest arson rate in the country. A 2012 budget cut closed one-fifth of firehouses and reduced fire investigation staff by half. Now one third of the 3,000 intentionally set structure fires each year in Detroit go entirely uninvestigated. Some crumbling buildings on fire on nearly abandoned blocks are not even put out.

In the poorest neighborhoods, the disinvestment piles up. When Highland Park was slapped with its first appointed emergency manager in 2001, he fired its entire municipal police force, outsourcing patrols to county officers. In 2007, the little city managed to muster up the funds to revive its police department- well, sort of. In 2012, author Mark Binelli found that the Highland Park Police Department was "headquartered in a mini-station at a strip mall, where the jail is a makeshift chain-link cage."

Now Highland Park mixes extreme poverty, improvised policing and an imposed blackout into a dangerous cocktail: some of the highest crime- and lowest arrest-rates in the country.

Private Protection for the Privileged

While budgetary neglect has produced "wild west" conditions in Detroit's black neighborhoods, downtown Detroit, with its influx of corporate cash and young white people, is doubling-down on public safety.

When DTE Energy launched its bait car program in 2014, it joined a corporate movement in Detroit to secure and patrol the small, but rapidly gentrifying downtown area, the star of Detroit's "comeback" story.

Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans/Rock Ventures and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is the architect of downtown's revitalization. He has single-handedly purchased 75 downtown properties and poured $1.6 billion into the revival of a single square mile of Detroit's downtown. Along with his business ventures, he has launched housing subsidy programs to get mostly young, white professionals to move into the area and has also been a primary player in developing a new rail system linking downtown to the moneyed suburbs.

While huge swaths of black neighborhoods are left to anarchy, corporate Detroiters like Dan Gilbert are throwing money at protecting the whitest square mile around.

Gilbert's Rock Ventures has installed more than 500 surveillance cameras in and on its buildings over the last five years. Some are fixed. Others are movable, "pan, tilt, zoom" cameras. All video feed runs directly to the Quicken Loans/Rock Ventures security command center in downtown Detroit's Chase Tower.

Rock Ventures also contracts a fleet of nearly 200 private security guards who patrol both public and private spaces. As private security, they are not permitted to take crime fighting into their own hands, but they do systematically report criminal behavior to the Detroit Police Department.

It is not unusual for corporations to patrol their own property. What is unique is that private corporations like Rock and DTE are taking the liberty to expand their security programs beyond their own corporate campuses. Sometimes corporate security gets overambitious. Rock Ventures has recently been accused of installing video cameras on buildings it does not own and the ACLU filed a suit earlier this year claiming that different private security guards illegally shut down a protest rally in a public park.

Still, not too many complain about the extra protection. Downtown is certainly a safer place than it was a decade ago, in large part to the heightened surveillance. Given the Detroit Police Department's chronic poverty, some consider it the best kind of corporate responsibility.

But the security that private companies like Rock Ventures and DTE provide is limited to the few square miles it is concerned with. As you drive outward from downtown, you see how quickly the corporate investment in peace and security disappears. Detroit's heartland is left to fend for itself.

DIY Security for the Underclass

Where official policing is MIA and corporate Detroit couldn't be bothered, there are residents like James "Jack Rabbit" Jackson. Jackson, an ex-cop, heads up an unofficial vigilante justice system in his south-east neighborhood, complete with home-camera video taping and public beat-downs. Other neighborhoods run their own systems, some organizing citizen patrols that cruise the block with baseball bats to deter crime. Even the city's police chief, acknowledging the limits of his under-funded department, recommended Detroit residents carry concealed weapons for protection.

But lasting, reliable public safety systems require investment. Poor communities that cannot raise funds themselves are left with few options but charity to fulfill once-guaranteed services.

When the fire department's Ladder 22 was robbed last year of two crucial chainsaws, it had to sell T-shirts to raise the funds to purchase new ones. The fundraised saws were soon stolen again, this time off the truck while the firefighters were busy putting out flames in an abandoned home.

After their debt-induced blackout, a Highland Park community group called Soulidarity began work to bring light back to their streets. The plan is to purchase and install solar-powered streetlights throughout Highland Park that would not depend on the neighborhood's financial status to illuminate the neighborhood. But absent of any public funding, the group has to depend on donations - an IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign and an "Adopt-a-Streetlight" program.

So far, the project has managed to replace exactly one streetlight in Highland Park out of the 1,000 DTE Energy removed four years ago.

Last week, Christopher Reed took his two young sons to a Wendy's on Detroit's West side for milkshakes. With most of the streetlights on the route broken, the drive was mostly through darkness. At the Wendy's drive-thru, Reed was robbed and then shot for no apparent reason. His older son called his mother after the shooting. She arrived at the scene before any emergency responders and drove her bloodied family to the hospital, where Christopher Reed died.

There were no functioning security cameras in or around the Wendy's to capture or deter the crime. By the time the understaffed Detroit police made it to the scene, the murderers had long since disappeared into the local blackout.

News Fri, 03 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Greece Needs Our Solidarity in Its Struggle Against Austerity

Greek flagA shattered Greek flag. (Image: Greek flag via Shutterstock)

Not for many years has the issue been posed as clearly as it will be on July 5 in Greece's referendum: European capitalists, the political leaders whom the capitalists' money controls, and the austerity they together impose will be judged by the people most savaged by that austerity.

The Greek people were informed that the financial maneuvers made by Europe's biggest banks, biggest industrial capitalists, and the usual political elites (shamefully including Greeks and "socialists") in 2008-2009 would absolutely require massive losses of Greek jobs, incomes, property, and financial security for many years to come. Recycling Margaret Thatcher's words, they were told "there is no alternative." Other Europeans (and Americans, etc. too) were told the same although their austerities were less bleak (so far).

After all, slaves had to suffer from the mistakes of their masters and the crises of slave systems - and likewise serfs had to suffer from their lords' mistakes and feudalism's crises. So workers must now absorb the costs of capitalism's crises and capitalists' mistakes (including the documented crimes of the biggest banks). Workers must suffer the capitalists' use of the state to bail themselves out of their crisis and then, via austerity policies, to shift that bailout's costs onto the general public. This, the Greeks were told, is what must be.

The Greeks have thus provided a convenient but urgent test case. European leaders believe that workers in capitalism's old centers (Western Europe, North America, and Japan, especially) now must accept declines in their standards of living. Capitalism is abandoning them to make higher profits in Asia, Latin America, etc. - capitalism's new centers. Savaging the Greek workers' standards of living (and, if needed, a few other countries' workers' too) teaches a double lesson. The first is, "decline is your future - get used to it." The second is, "be glad your decline is - deservedly - not as bad as that of the Greeks."

From 2008 to 2012 the Greeks followed their conventional leaders in accepting this dictated decline. They were told the austerity would be temporary, bitter medicine needed for recuperation. But the decline only got worse, and promises of recuperation came to be exposed as empty.

Syriza's rise to victory in 2012 represented both the Greek people's partial awakening to the reality of what was happening to them, and the Greeks' determination to stop and reverse their economic decline. The January to June 2015 negotiations between the Syriza government and the European leaders completed the Greek people's awakening. In response to the European leaders' mantra of "there is no alternative," Syriza and its Greek supporters answered, "alternatives are always there." It's just that conservatives cannot see or imagine them.

The referendum on July 5 will express the results in Greece of a contest between capitalism's management and plans for European society (economic decline for capitalism's old centers, disappearance of former "middle layers," their major cities' transformation into playgrounds for capitalism's richest, etc.) versus what Europe's working classes will permit. It will show Europe its future. If the Greek people vote no - their refusal to cooperate with capitalism's plans - then a new political landscape will emerge. In Europe and likely beyond, the new 21st-century struggle will pit new forms of socialism against forms of capitalist barbarism. If the Greeks vote yes, they will embolden European capitalist leaders to push austerity further until the next working class resistance arises and mobilizes sufficient support to finish what Syriza began.

Solidarity from others oppressed by austerity policies everywhere is Greece's greatest need now. Real solidarity will also help to mobilize the forces everywhere that are coming to realize the deepening costs and injustices of accepting capitalism's continuation.

Opinion Fri, 03 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"Reforms" to Immigrant Jails Aren't Enough, Say Families and Advocates

Under increasing pressure from human rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a slew of changes last week to the Obama administration's policy of incarcerating migrant families, but advocates and say prisoners are still offered bonds for release they could never afford to pay.

A woman and her son visiting the Donald W. Wyatt jail in Central Falls, R.I., on Sept. 9, 2008. The facility held thousands of immigration detainees this year. (Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)A woman and her son visiting the Donald W. Wyatt jail in Central Falls, Rhode Island, on September 9, 2008. The facility held thousands of immigration detainees this year. (Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)

Under increasing pressure from human rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a slew of changes last week to the Obama administration's policy of incarcerating migrant families in prisons in South Texas and Pennsylvania, which are operated by private prison companies. Johnson said that "long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources," and promised that "the detention of families will be short-term in most cases."

Other changes promised by Johnson include offering asylum-seeking migrant families who have proven a case of "credible fear" of persecution in their home country to pay bond to secure their release. DHS has also promised additional access to legal representation and social services for all detained immigrant families.

The Obama administration has come under additional pressure to curtail its immigrant-family incarceration policies in the past week, after eight House Democrats toured the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes, Texas, and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. (The Karnes jail is operated by the private prison company GEO group; the Dilley jail is operated by the private prison company Corrections Corporation of America.)

The lawmakers called on the Obama administration to close the two jails last week, calling the conditions inside "troubling" and likening the incarcerated families there to interned Japanese-Americans who were held in camps during World War II. One Congress member captured cellphone video of mothers chanting "libertad!" and holding signs to protest their conditions during the tour of the jail.

Conditions at the Karnes prison sparked a hunger strike in April, with 78 mothers initially joining the protest to demand an end to their incarceration and to highlight the lack of adequate food and medical care for their children, who they said were losing weight as a result. The number of hunger-striking mothers later dropped to 45 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials allegedly retaliated against some of the mothers, isolating three in a medical unit and threatening to separate many from their children.

One of the hunger-striking mothers who said she was isolated after ICE targeted her as a "ringleader" of the protest was Polyane Oliveira. She was recently released from Karnes after ICE issued her an $8,000 bond. Oliveira and two other mothers have sued ICE and the GEO Group, arguing they were unjustly retaliated against.

Oliveira's husband, who requested his name be withheld, said the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) raised the money to pay part of his wife's bond and the family received the rest of the money in donations from friends. "We didn't want to wait too much [to pay the bond], because, you know, that's what [ICE does]. They set up a bond and then take it away," he told Truthout.

Despite the fact that Oliveira faced rape and death threats, in her home country of Brazil, and that she and her 10-year-old daughter obtained "credible fear" status while incarcerated at Karnes, a Texas immigration judge has ordered that she be deported. She is appealing that decision and expects to be back in court to make her case July 10. "If they deport her, I'll pack everything up and go with the kids too," her husband told Truthout.

He said their family plans on joining a delegation to Washington, DC, with other undocumented families who've been held in such prison camps in South Texas and Pennsylvania, to meet with representatives and testify about their experiences. They also plan to meet with representatives in Boston. "We're not going to give up that easily," he said.

He thinks the main reason why DHS announced additional changes to the family incarceration policy last week was the increased pressure from lawmakers. "The Democrats are pressuring [DHS], like Rep. Luis Gutierrez," he said. "[ICE] didn't want [Oliveira] to talk with the Congress people, that's why we believe they set the bond for her. … I'm happy to hear that [DHS is] going to change the rules, and Polyane is even more happier than me."

The Obama administration has also come under pressure from federal courts. Earlier this year, a ruling limited the scope of the administration's use of immigrant-family incarceration as a deterrent to other potential migrants.

The Dilley and Karnes jails are part of an expansion of immigrant-family prison camps across South Texas, facilitated by the Obama administration as a response to the Central American migrant influx that reached its peak last summer, as more than 68,541 unaccompanied, undocumented minors crossed the Southwest border last year. Another 68,445 undocumented women traveling with children were counted. Those numbers have decreased considerably since last summer, but record numbers of unaccompanied children and family arrivals continue in 2015.

According to ICE officials, Karnes currently incarcerates 371 detainees, while the numbers at the Dilley prison have swelled in the past few weeks to 1,917 detainees, according to advocates.

Mohammad Abdollahi, who is advocacy director with RAICES, which organizes pro bono representation for asylum-seeking mothers at the Karnes jail, told Truthout that the DHS announcement is just an admission that the administration hasn't been following its own rules.

"I would not use the word 'reform' in any sense," Abdollahi said, referring to the DHS announcement of changes in family incarceration practices. "The way we've taken it is, this is the third time [DHS has said,] 'We actually mean it this time, we're going to follow our rules.'"

Abdollahi told Truthout that the only real change RAICES staffers have seen is that ICE has started granting bond to some women jailed at Karnes who are slated for deportation. (They were previously ineligible for bond.) But Abdollahi said the bonds being granted are too expensive for the families to afford, telling Truthout that the lowest bond he has seen ICE set has been $5,500, with the average bond between $10,000 and $12,000.

The DHS statement contends that ICE Director Sarah Saldaña presented DHS Secretary Johnson "with criteria for establishing a family's bond amount at a level that is reasonable and realistic, taking into account their ability to pay, while also encompassing risk of flight and public safety."

But Oliveira's husband said the bonds ICE is setting are far from reasonable or realistic for the families incarcerated at the private prison camps. "If [DHS is] going to start letting people out, they should think about letting them out by a lower bond. A $10,000 [or] $15,000 dollar bond is too much for a person in there that has nothing; they don't even have enough money on the inside to make phone calls and those things," he told Truthout, again emphasizing that the only reason why his family could pay Oliveira's bond is because they had support from RAICES and many of their friends.

The denial of bond and the issuing of high bonds may have caused at least two detainee mothers at Karnes to attempt suicide this month. Karnes staffers found 19-year-old Lilian Yamileth in a bathroom after she had cut her wrist earlier this month. Yamileth said her former partner in Honduras raped and threatened to kill her and that she fears he would kill her if she returned. She has since been deported, according to Abdollahi.

Another detainee mother attempted suicide last week after ICE issued her $8,500 bond, which, Abdollahi said, her family was unable to afford. ICE subsequently separated her from her child and isolated her in a medical unit, according to Abdollahi. She has since been released.

Abdollahi said staffing at the Dilley jail has been unable to keep pace with the growth of the population there, saying that on average, it takes two to four weeks for asylum-seeking families to have their initial "credible fear" interview, which is a critical, legal step in determining whether their asylum claim is valid.

At Dilley, Abdollahi said ICE has arbitrarily capped the capacity inside the trailer for legal staff at a maximum of 60 people. He said it's just another example of how the administration's claims that it's taking action to provide detainees with access to legal services are "a complete sham."

He said medical services at the facility are also proving to be woefully inadequate as the population swells. He said detainees have faced long lines for medical care, with some telling him that they have gotten in line at 7 am, only to finally be seen at 11 pm. If they leave the line, they are made to sign forms saying they refused medical treatment, he said.

Meanwhile, negotiations are ongoing between parties involved in a motion to enforce the settlement agreement in the Flores v. Holder case after a federal court in California granted a tentative motion to enforce the agreement, indicating that the Obama administration's policy of incarcerating families in prison-like camps that are not state-licensed, child-care facilities violates the settlement in the 2008 case and denying the government's argument to modify the settlement to allow for current family detention policies.

The Flores agreement set minimum national standards for the detention and release of children by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) or ICE, requiring the agencies to make an effort to release a detained child to a parent, close adult relative, or other guardian, if possible.

Most recently, the judge in the case threatened Monday to hold an immigration attorney in contempt of court for leaking confidential settlement documents in the case to McClatchy News.

Ranjana Natarajan, alongside her cocounsel with Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, is representing the plaintiffs in the motion, and previously told Truthout she is hopeful a final order in the case could result in the eventual winding down of the government's reliance on the use of family incarceration.

"We're hoping … that [the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)] will be more clear-headed and use these court rulings to understand that the writing is really on the wall with respect to family detention," she told Truthout.

Natarajan also told Truthout that the court has given the parties in the motion additional time to come up with a remedial plan for bringing ICE and CBP into compliance with the settlement.

"The only thing that we're crossing our fingers for is the Flores settlement, when the negotiations have finished, because it really seems like the administration has only been changing its policy - or saying they are going to change their policy - to meet the judge's sort of criticism of the Flores settlement," Abdollahi said. "The government's not going to do anything until they're forced into it."

News Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:33:51 -0400
How the Pope Is Revving Up Climate Action in LA's Most Polluted Neighborhood

Two young men performed their songs on acoustic guitars in Spanish while the rally chanted along in front of St. Basil Catholic Church in Los Angeles.

Even though not everyone in the crowd of around 30 people knew Spanish, the message transcended language: protect the most vulnerable from the effects of climate change.

After the June 18 release of "Laudato Si," Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and humanity's responsibility to protect it, young Catholics decided to host a rally to spread awareness of climate change's effect on the poor, particularly Latinos in Southern California. Some Catholics are hopeful that events like this, inspired by the encyclical, will spread and lead to a new emphasis on climate action within the faith.

Members of the youth group Pastoral Juvenil of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles gathered in front of St. Basil on the morning of June 27 to share what was written in the encyclical and encourage onlookers to participate.

"When I started working on the issue of environmental protection at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, it did not stir the emotions as it does now," says Allis Druffel, who spoke at the rally. "It is the hope of my colleagues and myself that Los Angeles Catholic churches and households will become real leaders in what Pope Francis is calling for in 'Laudato Si' - to tackle the injustices of poverty, poor health, and poor economic situations while caring for all of creation, both of which go hand in hand."

Juana Torres, a 33-year-old volunteer at Pastoral Juvenil and one of the organizers of the rally, spent much of the day passing out petitions with demands she hopes can be addressed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of the year. For example, the petition called for nations to lower their carbon emissions and provide funding to protect people vulnerable to climate-related disaster such as storms, droughts, and floods. Every person at the rally committed to gathering at least 20 signatures.

"We want to make sure that our leaders are hearing us," says Torres, who believes that climate change is near and dear to the hearts of many young Hispanics.

"A lot of us come from immigrant families, and a lot of families had to migrate in the first place because of the effect climate change has had in poor communities and keeping people in a cycle of poverty," she said, referring to the impact climate change has had on farms and urban areas of Latin America.

St. Basil is not the only Catholic church in southern Los Angeles taking the Pope's encyclical seriously. About 15 miles south, St. Emydius Roman Catholic Church stands around the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Cesar Chavez Middle School - names associated with civil and minority rights.

But within a 5-mile radius of the church, dozens of small factories contribute to making this part of Los Angeles home to some of the most polluted neighborhoods in the country.

This worries Father Juan Ochoa, a priest at St. Emydius, who says the pollutants in the area can harm children and pregnant women. It's for that reason that Ochoa plans to share Pope Francis' "Laudato Si" with his parish as soon as he can.

"Now that the document has been written, we have to put it into practice," says Ochoa. "We have to discuss this as a parish and then change can take place."

The Pope's encyclical has reignited several political debates: science versus religion, left versus right, climate change doubters versus believers. It enters a political context where international negotiations on climate change seem to be unable to arrive at a binding agreement. It's possible that the Pope's encyclical will push some Catholics to demand greater action, like the members of Pastoral Juvenil. But at St. Emydius, where around 20,000 families are registered, that discussion hasn't yet taken place.

Ochoa says the encyclical is not a political document and is worried that many in his parish think it is.

"Most people, what they hear is just what's in the news, and what's being reported in the media is political," he says. "The Pope isn't making a political statement and he isn't getting involved in American politics. This encyclical was addressed to the entire world."

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 71 percent of U.S. Catholics believe the Earth is warming, but only 47 percent believe it is a result of human activity.

The Pope's encyclical contradicts that belief directly, claiming that humanity's greed and violence has led to pollution and altered the climate.

"The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life," Pope Francis writes.

A Moment of Hope

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, southern Los Angeles has some of the highest levels of pollutants in the country. Since these areas are largely home to black and Latino people, the burden of this pollution tends to be carried by minority groups.

And it's not just Southern California where the pollution that troubles Pope Francis disproportionately affects communities of color: the same is true in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Miami, Phoenix, Atlanta, and many other cities.

These environmental problems have many health consequences and lead to asthma, cancers, and learning disabilities, according to Patricia Juarez, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. Juarez teaches a course on environmental justice in minority communities.

"The development issues that result from pollutants often keep people in a cycle of poverty, keep them out of school or keep them isolated," she says.

Juarez is optimistic that the Pope's encyclical will encourage climate change doubters to look for more information, and applauds the Vatican for leading the effort.

Patrick Carolan, co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, an international coalition of Catholic organizations, agrees. "I hope and pray that Catholics will take a look at the encyclical and read it with an open mind and put aside any biases," he says.

Ochoa at St. Emydius says he is praying for the same thing. He hopes that his parish can become more engaged in the discussion about climate change and wants to discuss a step-by-step plan at the next pastoral meeting, which the church will hold in July.

"I think our problem as priests is we haven't discussed it with our parish," he says. "It starts with us."

But long before Pope Francis' encyclical was released, Torres was already working with Pastoral Juvenil to engage young Latinos in the climate justice movement. She teaches a class on faith and ecology and often leads hikes where people pray in nature, for nature.

"For us, there's no debate," she says. "Pope Francis' encyclical only validates the work we've been doing."

Carolan thinks hope for the climate justice movement can be found in the newer generations.

"I think Pope Francis has already engaged younger people," he says. "He's helped a lot of young people connect with their spirituality, and sustainability is just one more way for young people to connect with their faith."

News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 14:02:49 -0400
Economic Update: Class and Socialism

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