Archive for April, 2013

Are Chemical and Fertilizer Companies Secret Terror Cells?

I admit I was pretty much glued to the internet and the radio for much of the day Friday as police closed in on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s hiding place, which turned out to be down the block from the home of close friends.  Given how close we live to Boston, the many New Hampshire runners participated in the Boston Marathon, and the fact that local  police SWAT teams joined to effort that led to Tsarnaev’s apprehension, it’s no surprise that my local newspaper had 3 front-page stories today about the aftermath of the Marathon bombing.

As I listen to two NPR Sunday morning news shows and hourly headlines providing ongoing news of the Boston events, what has me wondering is the contrast between overall coverage of the Marathon bombers and the low level of attention to the recent explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

The April 15 Marathon bombing killed three people and sent 183 others, many with terrible injuries, to local hospitals.  One law enforcement officer and one of the alleged bombers met violent deaths a few days later. 

The West Fertilizer Company’s facility in West, Texas caught fire and exploded on April 17.  There are 14 confirmed fatalities, including 10 volunteer firefighters, and more than 200 injured.  Dozens of homes, including a 50-unit apartment building, were destroyed, and dozens more homes were damaged.  My local paper today carries a 3-paragraph story on page two, reporting that Texas officials have said it is “safe, safe, and safe” for local residents to return home to the neighborhood they evacuated 3 days earlier.

All the lives lost are of immeasurable value; no mathematical formula can compare the impact of the two disasters. But they seem to be on the same scale in terms of casualties, heroism, and systemic dynamics that seethe underneath and make repeat disasters hard to predict but likely to occur. 

The perpetrators of the Marathon bombing are criminals and may well be terrorists.  What of the Adair Grain Company, owner of the West fertilizer distribution center?

According to the Dallas Morning News, “West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.” Yet according to the Dallas daily, the company maintained the plant’s operation posed no safety risk in documents filed with the EPA. 

An overview of the fertilizer industry published in a Washington Post blog stated, “The West, Texas plant stored and blended anhydrous ammonia — a pungent gas with suffocating fumes used as a fertilizer. It also contained as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can explode if mixed with fuel and ignited.”  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used ammonium nitrate to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. 

But the company checked off “no” under fire or explosive risks in its EPA report.  “The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one,”  according to the Dallas paper.

Will the owners and mangers of Adair Grain be held accountable?  “Within hours of the explosion, officials of the company and its insurance carriers hired a handful of law firms to prepare for a wave of litigation,” reported the Dallas Morning News.  The company could face hundreds of millions in damages, but can they be charged with murder? 

What of federal workplace safety officials, who have performed only six fertilizer plant inspections — not including West — in the past five years?  Are they responsible? 

What of Congress, which has lmited  OSHA’s budget and enforcement powers so much the agency can’t do its job?  Is Congress an accomplice to murder? 

A 2008 survey by the Dallas Morning News identified 23 dangerous facilities located within a quarter mile of residential neighborhoods just in Dallas County.  “Residents of those neighborhoods tend to be lower-income, Hispanic and living in apartments or mobile homes,” the article said.   

“Dallas planning studies and zoning cases dating back nearly 65 years, reviewed by The News, almost never mention the danger of chemicals at a nearby plant or warehouse,” the article continued.  “Most of the sites aren’t required to get a special permit to operate because city law covers only companies that manufacture chemicals. It doesn’t include those that store, sell or use the chemicals to make other products.”

“So the plants are hidden hazards. There are often no smokestacks with telltale clouds. And the most dangerous chemicals have household names – chlorine, which keeps water clean, and ammonia, which keeps food cold.” 

According to the Washington Post, there are more than 6000 retail fertilizer facilities around the country.  No doubt many neighbors are unaware of the danger they face in the event of an accident.  Are corporations which conceal dangers from the public culpable? 

“The need for a stronger Occupational Safety and Health Act was demonstrated this week with the tragic explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), a labor-based education and advocacy group. 

“When the plant was last inspected by OSHA all the way back in 1985, it was fined only $30 for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia,” O’Connor said.

COSH is backing the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act and make felony charges possible when repeated and willful violations result in a worker’s death or serious injury.

The West fire and explosion make it obvious that it’s not only workers who are at risk.  O’Connor says “We need a system in which facilities that are inherently dangerous are required to develop detailed disaster prevention plans before they’re allowed to operate.”  That would be a good start.

National COSH is organizing Workers Memorial Week events around the country this week.  The New Hampshire affiliate will hold its Workers Memorial Day event in Hooksett on Thursday, April 25.  By coincidence, that’s the same day the fourteen West, Texas victims will be memorialized at a service at Baylor University.  I haven’t heard if Barack Obama will be attending.  

[Update: President Obama did attend the memorial service, at which he praised West, Texas for its community spirit and the courage of its volunteer firefighters.  He did not address the cause of the explosion.  Click here for his comments.]


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Prominent New Hampshire Republicans, including several who hail from the right-wing party’s right wing, spoke out today in support of immigration reform legislation introduced yesterday by a bi-partisan group of eight US Senators.

The occasion, a news conference in the Legislative Office Building, was organized by the Partnership for a New American Economy, an organization that “brings together a bpartnership press conf 4-18-13 008ipartisan group of mayors from across the country and business leaders from all sectors of the economy and all 50 states to raise awareness of the economic  benefits of sensible immigration reform.”

It was no surprise to see Fergus Cullen there.   The former GOP State Chairman is a prominent supporter of immigration reform and is also the founder of a pro-reform advocacy group, “Americans by Choice.”  He has actively distanced himself from the party’s Bill O”Brien wing. 

It was more impressive to see Kevin Smith, one-time lobbyipartnership press conf 4-18-13 005st for the social conservative Cornerstone Institute and a candidate for governor in the last election.  “We need to modernize our immigration laws,” he said.  

Andrew Hemingway, who ran Newt Gingrich’s presidential primary campaign and more recently waged a campaign to be GOP state chairman, also stood up for immigration reform as a way to assure more workers for high-tech manufacturing. 

Also along for the ride were Representatives George Lambert and Pam Tucker, who called the Gang of Eight’s proposal “a great first start” and a way to keep the US population growing.  

For those readers who are not intimate with New Hampshire politics, these folks aren’t just conservatives.  Smith, Lambert, and Tucker embody the agenda of the partnership press conf 4-18-13 001 party’s far right wing.  And they are exactly who is needed in the pro-reform coalition to get Senator Kelly Ayotte on board. 

The perspective of the Partnership’s partners is that immigration reform serves the interest of America’s business class.  They have a particular interest in the ability of employers to hire high-skilled immigrants.  An alliance between them and the grassroots immigrants’ rights movement, with its union and working class immigrant membership, will be awkward.  But successful politics usually makes for interesting bedfellows.

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Traditions don’t travel from generation to gcanterbury 4-14-13 005eneration on their own; it takes people  to carry them forward through the years.  Dudley Laufman played that role in the world of traditional New England country dancing for the second half of the 20th century and now for a decade-and-a-half into this one.  Today, with his partner Jacqueline, he shared some of his experience at the Canterbury Town Hall.

Dudley has been playing fiddle and leading dances for 64 years.  Speaking to about 35 people at a program sponsored by the town’s historical society with support from the NH Humanities Council, Dudley said he learned his trade from Ralph Page, a fiddler and dance caller from Nelson, New Hampshire, where Dudley attended an agricultural high school.  Page learned from his uncle and from Happy Hale, who used to travel up to Nelson from the Greenfield, Massachusetts area.  Dudley didn’t say how Happy Hale picked up the tradition, which dates from New England settlers in the 1600s.

The first dances were held in homes, usually in the kitchen, which Dudley said was usually the biggest room.  “The fiddle was the big instrument,” he said, but sometimes fiddlers would be joined by harpsichords, flutes, and cellos, especially in the homes of rich people.  Tunes we know as “Muffin Man” and “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” wdudley canterbury 4-14-13 008cropere among those brought over from England and used for dances. 

Dancers knew the steps and passed them on to newcomers, according to Dudley’s version of traditional dance history.  It wasn’t until the 1800s, when dances began taking place at larger venues like town halls, that dances started having callers, usually fiddlers. 

The style of dances Dudley leads are sometimes called “contra dancing.”  The name derives from “country dancing,” as it was called back in the day.  French dance masters learned the style and steps and re-named it “contra.”  The name traveled back across the Channel and stuck.  Since many dances are performed in opposing lines, “contra," which means “against,” seemed a fitting title. 

By now, Dudley says pure “contra” dances are more popular in urban areas and often involve intricate steps that are difficult to learn.  He prefers to mix simple contracanterbury 4-14-13 019s with square and circle dances, generally with calls that are easy for beginners and dancers of all ages.  These days, Dudley usually calls his programs “barn dances.”

From Nelson, Dudley moved to Fremont, New Hampshire, where he took a job on a dairy farm with a farmer who played the fiddle and a farmer’s wife who called dances.  He tagged along to “kitchen junkets.” 

“That’s how I got hooked,” he said.

Dudley doesn’t get sole credit, but he played an essential role carrying the New England country dance tradition from the Ralph Page era, when callers learned the steps by observation and the music from playing, to the modern era.  Page recorded the first albums of traditional New England dances in the ‘50s on 78 rpm discs.  Dudley’s later recordings with the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra were the canterbury 4-14-13 026 first 33s. 

Now we can learn the music without even going to a dance and learn the steps on You Tube.  (I don’t recommend that method.)

With Jacqueline, Dudley has written a book to teach the dances, mentored six apprentice callers, and led untold numbers of dancers through balances, swings, and promenades for six decades.  In 2009 Dudley was named a National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. 

Unlike many lectures, Dudley’s presentation mixed tunes, stories, and poetry with stories, and finished up with a short dance.  That’s how education ought to be!

You can learn more and find dances schedules on Dudley and Jacqueline’s web site.

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The “King of Beers,” Indeed 

When the snow melts but before the Canada Mayflower’s green shoots pierce the leaf litter, the winter’s accumulation of beer cans and bottles emerges alongside the road near our house.  Today, the day designated for roadside clean-up in Canterbury, we headed out, equipped with blue trash canterbury 4-13-13 016bags provided by the town recycling center.

Walking from the corner of Mudgett Hill Road to Shaker Road and back, we found  a few styrofoam containers, a small load of shingles, one empty pack of cigarettes, and some other shreds of plastic and paper.  But mostly what we found was bottles and cans.  And this gives me a scientific tool to measure the drinking preferences of local litterers (or the littering habits of local drinkers).

Today’s collection: 64 aluminum cans, 12 plastic bottles, and 29 glass bottles.

What always impresses me most about the roadside trash is Anheuser Busch’s commanding market share.  Within the AB family, Bud Light is clearly the most popular.  Of the 64 cans, 30 (47%) were Bud Light.  That brand also captured 48% in the smaller bottle category.  Counting other brands, AB made up 64% of the cans and 55% of the bottles. 

And that makes me wonder if Bud drinkers more prone to littering.  Or is Bud’s share of the market so commanding that these statistics show the company’s customers are more responsible than the average beer drinker.

Of course I have shared my findings with the company, via its web site.  I’ll let you know if they write back.

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Forty faith, labor, and community activists prayed, sang, and protested outside Manchester’s Federal Building this afternoon to express outrage about recmanchester 4-9-13 019cropent actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in area homes and  businesses.

ICE agents entered a Nashua home in the wee hours of Sunday morning, roused residents from their beds, and took away two men in shackles.  The men had no criminal remanchester 4-9-13 040cropcords and were released by ICE on Monday, according to a Nashua Telegraph report.  

Also Sunday, a squad of ICE and local police officers entered the El Mexicano Jr. restaurant in Manchester, took away two  customers, asked other customers for ID, and threatened to return. 

The ICE actions reveal a frightening contrast to policies that manchester 4-9-13 044are supposed to place priority on people who could be considered threats to public safety and leave others alone.  The home raid also appears to violate terms of a recent federal court order which bars ICE from warrantless searches.   

Outside the Norris Cotton Federal Building, participants expressed outrage at ICE’s abusive actions.  They also said they will call on the state’s members of Congress to help rein in Imanchester 4-9-13 047CE and act speedily to approve humane immigration policies. 

Nancy Pape, chair of the NH  United Church of Christ Immigration Working Group led the group in a prayer.  Members of the Smanchester 4-9-13 024isters of Mercy  led another.  The program included a rousing rendition of “We Shall Not Be Moved” in Spanish and English, and concluded with “We Shall Overcome.”

The demonstration was organized in a day by the American manchester 4-9-13 033 Friends Service Committee, NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, SEIU Locals 615 and 1984, and others involved in support for immigrants’ rights and humane immigration policy,

Activists plan to meet up again at the State House Plaza in Concord on May 1, International Workers Day.  

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“The Time is Now”nashua 4-6-13 012 crop

More than a hundred immigrants rights supporters rallied today at Nashua City Hall  and marched to the offices of Senators Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen to call for reforms centered on a clear and direct path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the USA. 

Rally speakers included Eva Castillo of the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees; the Rev. Tom Woodward of the Granite State Organizing Project; Juan Zamudio, a student at Derryfield School in Manchester; Marisol Saavedra, a Nashua student; and Carols Escobar of SEIU  nashua 4-6-13 040crop Local 615.

In many years of working across the US, I saw time and time again bosses use the broken immigration system to mistreat, intimidate, underpay and over work undocumented workers,” said Escobar, an Ecuadoran immigrant who works as a janitor in Nashua. 

“When employers pay lower wages to some workers, all workers are affected and standards are lowered for everyone,” the Local 615 member added.

Participants included union members, faith community leaders, and otnashua 4-6-13 014cropher social justice activists adding their bodies and voices to the movement calling on Congress to act now for humane immigration policies. 

Following the brief rally, the crowd marched north into Nashua’s downtown shopping district and crossed over to the east side of the road by the office of Senator Kelly Ayotte.  There, they taped a giant letter to the window, where marchers added their signatures to a statement calling for commonsense immigration reform that fosters unity.

nashua 4-6-13 031 “The time for action is long overdue and there is bipartisan agreement on moving forward,” the statement said.  “A reform package that includes a path to citizenship makes economic sense and is true to our ideals as a nation.  Taking action now makes sense politically, as well, since the American public supports immigration reform.”

Marchers continued northward to Senator Shaheen’s office where another letter was taped to the window for signatures. 

The program concluded with a statement from Germano Martins, a member of the State Employees Association (SEIU Local 1984) followed by a prayer led by the Rev. Sandra Pontoh of the Maranatha Indonesian United Church of Christ.  nashua 4-6-13 109

The organizing committee included SEIU Locals 615 and 1984, the NH AFL-CIO, NH Civil Liberties Union, Lutheran Social Services, the Granite State Organizing Project, the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, the United Church of Christ Immigration Working Group, and the American Friends Service Committee.

Another rally will take place at State House Plaza in Concord at noon on Wednesday, May 1.

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New Hampshire will not privatize its prisons, at least not in the near future.  That’s the decision announced by the state today with the release of a long-awaited analysis of bids submitted by four private firms in response to a 2011 Request for Proposals from the state. 

The state’s consultant, MGT of America, found that none of the bids met the requirements spelled out in the RFP.  All of them “had deficiencies from an operational standpoint.”

[Click here for the report from MGT of America.]

Specifically, according to a parallel report released by the Departments of Corrections and Administrative Services, “all were non-compliant with meeting the Department of Corrections’ legal obligations.”

“More specifically, the proposals exhibited a lack of understanding of the overarching legal requirements placed upon the DOC relating to the court orders, consent decrees and settlements which, in large part, dictate the administration and operation of their correctional facilities and attendant services to the inmate populations,” the state agencies said. 

[Click here for the report from the state agencies.]

The agencies concluded, “The immediate next step, taken in conjunction with the release of this report, is the formal cancellation of the solicitation process. This decision, based upon the detail provided above, is made in the best interests of the State.”

That the private industry leaders were not able to explain how they would actually meet the state’s legal obligations should be seen as evidence that these companies can’t be trusted to operate prisons anywhere. 

MGT also reported that the staff compensation levels built into the privatization proposals was “one-half of the current compensation currently paid to similar positions in the state.”

“The state should be concerned that this significantly lower wage may make it difficult to maintain a trained and experienced staff. This could result in high turnover and ultimately impact the safety and security of the correctional facilities,” MGT added.

“In prior MGT studies of private correctional facility operations,” the report   elaborated, “we have found private correctional facilities with annual staff turnover rates of 42 percent compared to 13.3 percent for nearby public facilities. High turnover, which can result from non-competitive compensation levels, produces a chronically inexperienced work force with direct implications for the integrity of facility security and safety. Low compensation levels can also make staff recruitment more difficult, resulting in staff vacancies and reliance on overtime, which again has a negative impact upon facility security.”

The state’s report leaves open the possibility that the state would entertain privatization as an option at some point in the future.  That would be a huge mistake.  Instead, the legislature should pass HB 443, a bill that blocks the state from considering privatization.  This measure has already passed the NH House and comes before the Senate Finance Committee next Tuesday. 

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