Pipeline developer charged over systematic contamination

Associated Press

Pipeline developer charged over systematic contamination

Michael Rubinkam October 5, 2021

Gas Pipeline Investigation 1-9
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at podium, speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, center left, meets with members of the public and the press after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Libby Madarasz displays a placard before Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Libby Madarasz displays a placard as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at podium, speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)More

The corporate developer of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline system that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia was charged criminally on Tuesday after a grand jury concluded that it flouted Pennsylvania environmental laws and fouled waterways and residential water supplies across hundreds of miles.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the sprawling case at a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, where Sunoco Pipeline LP spilled thousands of gallons of drilling fluid last year. The spill, during construction of the troubled Mariner East 2 pipeline, contaminated wetlands, a stream and part of a 535-acre lake.

Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s owner, faces 48 criminal charges, most of them for illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 counties across the state. A felony count accuses the operator of willfully failing to report spills to state environmental regulators.

Shapiro said Energy Transfer ruined the drinking water of at least 150 families statewide. He released a grand jury report that includes testimony from numerous residents who accused Energy Transfer of denying responsibility for the contamination and then refusing to help.

The Texas-based pipeline giant was charged for “illegal behavior that related to the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline that polluted our lakes, our rivers and our water wells and put Pennsylvania’s safety at risk,” said Shapiro, speaking with Marsh Creek Lake behind him.

Messages were sent to Energy Transfer seeking comment. The company has previously said it intends to defend itself.

The company faces a fine if convicted, which Shapiro said was not a sufficient punishment. He called on state lawmakers to toughen penalties on corporate violators, and said the state Department of Environmental Protection — which spent freely on outside lawyers for its own employees during the attorney general’s investigation — had failed to conduct appropriate oversight.

In a statement, DEP said it has been “consistent in enforcing the permit conditions and regulations and has held Sunoco LP accountable.” The agency said it would review the charges “and determine if any additional actions are appropriate at this time.”

Residents who live near the pipeline and some state lawmakers said Mariner East should be shut down entirely in light of the criminal charges, but the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has long ignored such calls to pull the plug.

The August 2020 spill at Marsh Creek was among a series of mishaps that has plagued Mariner East since construction began in 2017. Early reports put the spill at 8,100 gallons, but the grand jury heard evidence the actual loss was up to 28,000 gallons. Parts of the lake are still off-limits.

“This was a major incident, but understand, it wasn’t an isolated one. This happened all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Shapiro, a Democrat who plans to run for governor next year. He said that spills of drilling fluid were “frequent and damaging and largely unreported.”

The pipeline developer continued to rack up civil violations even after Mariner East became one of the most penalized projects in state history. To date, DEP said Energy Transfer has paid more than $20 million in fines for polluting waterways and drinking water wells, including a $12.6 million fine in 2018 that was one of the largest ever imposed by the agency. State regulators have periodically shut down construction.

But environmental activists and homeowners who assert their water has been fouled say that fines and shutdown orders have not forced Sunoco to clean up its act. They have been demanding revocation of Mariner East’s permits.

Carrie Gross, who has been living with the roar of Mariner East construction in her densely packed Exton neighborhood all day, six days a week, for much of the last four years, fears that criminal charges will be just as ineffectual as DEP’s civil penalties.

“I would say this is just another example of Energy Transfer paying to pollute, and that’s part of their cost of doing business. Until somebody permanently halts this project, our environment and our lives continue to be in danger,” Gross said.

The dental hygienist lives about 100 feet from the pipelines and works about 50 feet from them. She said she worries about the persistent threat of sinkholes, a catastrophic rupture or an explosion even after construction is over.

Shapiro’s news conference was originally rescheduled for Monday, but was abruptly postponed after the state environmental agency provided last-minute information to the attorney general’s office. The new information led to the filing of two additional charges, Shapiro said.

Energy Transfer acknowledged in a recent earnings report that the attorney general has been looking at “alleged criminal misconduct” involving Mariner East. The company said in the document it was cooperating but that “it intends to vigorously defend itself.”

The various criminal probes into Mariner East have also consumed DEP, which has spent about $1.57 million on outside criminal defense lawyers for its employees between 2019 and 2021, according to invoices obtained by The Associated Press.

The money was paid to five separate law firms representing dozens of DEP employees who dealt with Mariner East. Together, the firms submitted more than 130 invoices related to Mariner East investigations, performing legal work such as reviewing subpoenas and preparing clients to testify, the documents show.

When Mariner East construction permits were approved in 2017, environmental advocacy groups accused the Wolf administration of violating the law and warned pipeline construction would unleash massive and irreparable damage to Pennsylvania’s environment and residents.

“If we have a system where … the punishment, the fines, are basically seen as just a price of doing business, then we’ll continue to have violations in the commonwealth,” said David Masur, executive director of Philadelphia-based PennEnvironment.

State officials “have a huge stick they could wield,” he added. “Maybe they just have to stop hesitating and use it.”

The Mariner East pipeline system transports propane, ethane and butane from the enormous Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale gas fields in western Pennsylvania to a refinery processing center and export terminal in Marcus Hook, outside Philadelphia.

Energy Transfer also operates the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which went into service in 2017 after months of protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others during its construction.

Pandora papers: biggest ever leak of offshore data exposes financial secrets of rich and powerful

Pandora papers: biggest ever leak of offshore data exposes financial secrets of rich and powerful

Guardian investigations team October 3, 2021

Pandora Papers illustraion
The Pandora papers reveal the inner workings of what is a shadow financial world, providing a rare window into the hidden operations of a global offshore economy. Illustration: Guardian Design

Millions of documents reveal offshore deals and assets of more than 100 billionaires, 30 world leaders and 300 public officials

The secret deals and hidden assets of some of the world’s richest and most powerful people have been revealed in the biggest trove of leaked offshore data in history.

Branded the Pandora papers, the cache includes 11.9m files from companies hired by wealthy clients to create offshore structures and trusts in tax havens such as Panama, Dubai, Monaco, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

They expose the secret offshore affairs of 35 world leaders, including current and former presidents, prime ministers and heads of state. They also shine a light on the secret finances of more than 300 other public officials such as government ministers, judges, mayors and military generals in more than 90 countries.

The files include disclosures about major donors to the Conservative party, raising difficult questions for Boris Johnson as his party meets for its annual conference.

More than 100 billionaires feature in the leaked data, as well as celebrities, rock stars and business leaders. Many use shell companies to hold luxury items such as property and yachts, as well as incognito bank accounts. There is even art ranging from looted Cambodian antiquities to paintings by Picasso and murals by Banksy.

The Pandora papers reveal the inner workings of what is a shadow financial world, providing a rare window into the hidden operations of a global offshore economy that enables some of the world’s richest people to hide their wealth and in some cases pay little or no tax.Quick Guide

What are the Pandora Papers

There are emails, memos, incorporation records, share certificates, compliance reports and complex diagrams showing labyrinthine corporate structures. Often, they allow the true owners of opaque shell companies to be identified for the first time.

The files were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington. It shared access to the leaked data with select media partners including the Guardian, BBC Panorama, Le Monde and the Washington Post. More than 600 journalists have sifted through the files as part of a massive global investigation.

The Pandora papers represent the latest – and largest in terms of data volume – in a series of major leaks of financial data that have convulsed the offshore world since 2013.

Setting up or benefiting from offshore entities is not itself illegal, and in some cases people may have legitimate reasons, such as security, for doing so. But the secrecy offered by tax havens has at times proven attractive to tax evaders, fraudsters and money launderers, some of whom are exposed in the files.I AM TOOLTIP 3

Perhaps the most significant offshore leak to date was the 2016 Panama papers, which consisted of 2.6 terabytes of data leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The following year saw the release of the Paradise papers, most of which were from the offshore provider Appleby, which was founded in Bermuda. In total, that cache consisted of 1.4 terabytes of data.

Containing 2.94 terabytes, the Pandora papers is the largest of the three leaks. The files also come from a much wider array of offshore providers than previous leaks: 14 in total. Locations range from Vietnam to Belize and Singapore, and to far-flung archipelagos such as the Bahamas and the Seychelles.Advertisement

Other wealthy individuals and companies stash their assets offshore to avoid paying tax elsewhere, a legal activity estimated to cost governments billions in lost revenues.

After more than 18 months analysing the data in the public interest, the Guardian and other media outlets will publish their findings over the coming days, beginning with revelations about the offshore financial affairs of some of the most powerful political leaders in the world.

They include the ruler of Jordan, King Abdullah II, who, leaked documents reveal, has amassed a secret $100m property empire spanning Malibu, Washington and London. The king declined to answer specific questions but said there would be nothing improper about him owning properties via offshore companies. Jordan appeared to have blocked the ICIJ website on Sunday, hours before the Pandora papers launched.

The Azerbaijan president, Ilham Aliyev, and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva.
The Azerbaijan president, Ilham Aliyev, and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva. The Aliyev family has traded close to £400m of UK property in recent years. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The files also show that Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family has traded close to £400m of UK property in recent years. One of their properties was sold to the Queen’s crown estate, which is now looking into how it came to pay £67m to a company that operated as a front for the family that runs a country routinely accused of corruption. The Aliyevs declined to comment.

The Pandora papers also threaten to cause political upsets for two European Union leaders. The prime minister of the Czech republic, Andrej Babis, who is up for election this week, is facing questions over why he used an offshore investment company to acquire a $22m chateau in the south of France. He too declined to comment.

The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš
The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is facing questions over why he used an offshore investment company to acquire a $22m chateau in the south of France. Photograph: Milan Kammermayer/EPA

And in Cyprus, itself a controversial offshore centre, the president, Nicos Anastasiades, may be asked to explain why a law firm he founded was accused of hiding the assets of a controversial Russian billionaire behind fake company owners. The firm denies any wrongdoing, while the Cypriot president says he ceased having an active role in its affairs after becoming leader of the opposition in 1997.

Not everyone named in the Pandora papers is accused of wrongdoing. The leaked files reveals that Tony and Cherie Blair saved £312,000 in property taxes when they purchased a London building partially owned by the family of a prominent Bahraini minister.

The former prime minister and his wife bought the £6.5m office in Marylebone by acquiring a British Virgin Islands (BVI) offshore company. While the move was not illegal, and there is no evidence the Blairs proactively sought to avoid property taxes, the deal highlights a loophole that has enabled wealthy property owners not to pay a tax that is commonplace for ordinary Britons.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie Blair
Tony and Cherie Blair bought a £6.5m office in Marylebone by acquiring a British Virgin Islands offshore company. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

The leaked records vividly illustrate the central coordinating role London plays in the murky offshore world. The UK capital is home to wealth managers, law firms, company formation agents and accountants. All exist to serve their ultra-rich clients. Many are foreign-born tycoons who enjoy “non-domicile” status, which means they pay no tax on their overseas assets.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is also named in the leak. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected in 2019 on a pledge to clean up his country’s notoriously corrupt and oligarch-influenced economy, is also named in the leak. During the campaign, Zelenskiy transferred his 25% stake in an offshore company to a close friend who now works as the president’s top adviser, the files suggest. Zelenskiy declined to comment and it is unclear if he remains a beneficiary.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whom the US suspects of having a secret fortune, does not appear in the files by name. But numerous close associates do, including his best friend from childhood – the late Petr Kolbin – whom critics have called a “wallet” for Putin’s own wealth, and a woman the Russian leader was allegedly once romantically involved with. None responded to invitations to comment.

The Pandora papers also place a revealing spotlight on the offshore system itself. In a development likely to prove embarrassing for the US president, Joe Biden, who has pledged to lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, the US emerges from the leak as a leading tax haven. The files suggest the state of South Dakota, in particular, is sheltering billions of dollars in wealth linked to individuals previously accused of serious financial crimes.

The offshore trail also stretches from Africa to Latin America to Asia, and is likely to pose difficult questions for politicians across the world. In Pakistan, Moonis Elahi, a prominent minister in prime minister Imran Khan’s government, contacted an offshore provider in Singapore about investing $33.7m.

Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, will come under pressure to explain why he and his close relatives amassed more than $30m of offshore wealth. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

In Kenya, the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has portrayed himself as an enemy of corruption. In 2018, Kenyatta told the BBC: “Every public servant’s assets must be declared publicly so that people can question and ask: what is legitimate?”

He will come under pressure to explain why he and his close relatives amassed more than $30m of offshore wealth, including property in London. Kenyatta did not respond to enquiries about whether his family wealth was declared to relevant authorities in Kenya.

The Pandora papers also reveal some of the unseen repercussions of previous offshore leaks, which spurred modest reforms in some parts of the world, such as the BVI, which now keeps a record of the real owners of companies registered there. However, the newly leaked data shows money shifting around offshore destinations, as wealthy clients and their advisers adjust to new realities.

Some clients of Mossack Fonseca, the now defunct law firm at the heart of the 2016 Panama papers disclosures, simply transferred their companies to rival providers such as another global trust and corporate administrator with a major office in London, whose data is in the new trove of leaked files.

Asked why he was migrating the new company, one customer wrote bluntly: “Business decision to exit following the Panama papers.” Another agent said the industry had always “adapted” to external pressure.

Some leaked files appear to show some in the industry seeking to circumvent new privacy regulations. One Swiss lawyer refused to email the names of his high-value customers to a service provider in the BVI, following new legislation. Instead, he sent them by airmail, with strict instructions they should not be processed in any “electronic way”. The identity of another beneficial owner was shared via WhatsApp.Advertisement

“The purpose of this way to proceed is to enable you to comply with BVI rules,” the lawyer wrote. Referring to Mossack Fonseca, the lawyer added: “You are obliged to keep secrecy for our clients and to not make feasible at all a second ‘Panama papers’ story that happened to one of your competitors.”

Gerard Ryle, the director of the ICIJ, said leading politicians who organized their finances in tax havens had a stake in the status quo, and were likely to be an obstacle to reform of the offshore economy. “When you have world leaders, when you have politicians, when you have public officials, all using the secrecy and all using this world, then I don’t think we’re going to see an end to it.

He expected the Pandora papers to have a greater impact than previous leaks, not least because they were arriving in the middle of a pandemic that had exacerbated inequalities and forced governments to borrow unprecedented amounts to be shouldered by ordinary taxpayers. “This is the Panama papers on steroids,” Ryle said. “It’s broader, richer and has more detail.”

At least $11.3tn in wealth is held offshore, according to a 2020 study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “This is money that is being lost to treasuries around the world and money that could be used to recover from Covid,” Ryle said. “We’re losing out because some people are gaining. It’s as simple as that. It’s a very simple transaction that’s going on here.”

Pandora papers reporting team: Simon Goodley, Harry Davies, Luke Harding, Juliette Garside, David Conn, David Pegg, Paul Lewis, Caelainn Barr, Rowena Mason and Pamela Duncan in London; Ben Butler and Anne Davies in Sydney; Dominic Rushe in New York; Andrew Roth in Moscow; Helena Smith in Athens; Michael Safi in Lebanon; Robert Tait in Prague.

In battle to restore power after Ida, a tent city rises

Associated Press

In battle to restore power after Ida, a tent city rises

Rebecca Santana September 24, 2021

Bryan Willis, of Stilwell, Okla., an electrical worker for Ozarks Electric, looks at his phone before going to bed in a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers congregate in the evening after parking their trucks after a day's work at a tent city in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Brian Ramshur, an electrical worker for Sparks Energy, climbs a power pole to restore power lines running through a marsh, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers install guy wires for a new utility pole in a marsh in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Josiah Goodman, left, and Austin Fleetwood, of Berryville, Ark. workers for Carroll Electric Cooperative Corporation, walk with a rainbow above them, through a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers make their beds in a tent city in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Signs mark a clothes drop in a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Josh Anderson, Minneapolis, Minn., an electrical worker for Sparks Energy, eats a dinner in a cafeteria of a tent city for electrical workers, in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Workers watch TV and eat dinner in the cafeteria of a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Workers bunk down for the night in a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Caterer Tony Faul, center, works with Kaleb Boullion, left, and Haven Doucet as they prepare breakfast inside a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Workers gas up rows of trucks after a day's work at a tent city in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Ida came ashore on Aug. 29, it knocked out power to about 1.1 million customers in the state. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Workers from Southwest Arkansas Electric, of Texarkana, Ark., relax on their truck after a day's work, inside a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers ride through marsh in a marsh buggy to restore power lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges like just getting out to some of the areas where power poles and lines need to be fixed. In some areas lines thread through thick swamps that can only be accessed by air boat or specialized equipment like a marsh buggy. Linemen don waders to climb into chest-high muddy waters also home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
A home is so damaged it will not be able to receive power once it is restored, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Dulac, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Shannon Beebe, an electrical worker for Sparks Energy, arrives in a marsh buggy to restore power lines running through a marsh in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers for Sparks Energy ride in a marsh buggy to restore power lines running through a marsh in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers ride through marsh in an airboat to restore power lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Utility poles are loaded onto trucks at dawn before heading out to restore power, at a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
A worker straps down utility poles that were just loaded on their truck before they head out to restore power at dawn, at a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
A worker stands by to guide a spool of electrical wire being loaded onto his truck before heading out at dawn, inside a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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APTOPIX Hurricane Ida Restoring Electricity

Bryan Willis, of Stilwell, Okla., an electrical worker for Ozarks Electric, looks at his phone before going to bed in a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)MoreREBECCA SANTANASeptember 24, 2021

AMELIA, La. (AP) — When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region.

In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. They need to sleep somewhere. They need to eat. Their trucks need fuel. They need wires, ties and poles. And occasionally they need cigarettes. Power providers build tent cities like this to meet those needs.

“There’s three things a lineman wants: good food, cold bed, hot shower. If you can get those three, you can work,” says Matthew Peters, operations manager for South Louisiana Electric Cooperative Association, which built the tent city to house a peak of about 1,100 workers helping restore power to the cooperative’s customers.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-6-0/html/r-sf-flx.html

When Ida came ashore on Aug. 29, it knocked out power to about 1.1 million customers in the state. The vast majority have seen their power restored, but in a sign of the storm’s extent, thousands are still in the dark while downed lines are righted and substations repaired.

SLECA provides electricity to about 21,000 customers, including many in the hard-hit bayou regions. Power has been restored to about 81% of their coverage area with the remaining 19% in areas with the most catastrophic damage, said Joe Ticheli, general manager of the cooperative. After initially fearing full restoration of power could take months, estimates are now that it could happen by next week, Ticheli said.

Over a few short days, SLECA and a consulting firm transformed the location that used to be a hub for oil field manufacturer McDermott International into a temporary home for workers from across the country. Ticheli even appointed a mayor to make sure things run smoothly.

In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. Tons of gravel was packed down on top of a grassy field so bucket trucks and other equipment — many flying American flags — can park.

At sunset, after workers park their trucks and head in to eat, shower and sleep, gasoline trucks drive up and down the rows, fueling the vehicles so no time is lost in the morning. Special treats — like cigarettes or steak night — help ease 16-hour workdays. Out-of-state crews are teamed with a local employee dubbed a “bird dog” who helps them.

Across the street is a warehouse where supplies such as transformers and wires are available. Outside, long wooden replacement poles wait to be loaded onto trucks.

Jordy Bourg, who runs the warehouse, said that right after the storm they had some supplies but immediately had to start ordering more. But like many things in the pandemic era, it’s been a challenge after Ida to get certain supplies.

Many people coming in to help have covered other disasters: Hurricane Michael, Hurricane Laura, ice storms in Arkansas and Texas. It’s good money, but more than that, they say it’s the feeling of restoring normalcy to someone who’s had everything stripped away from them. And many point out that the next disaster could easily be in their own backyard. Last year crews from SLECA went to southwest Louisiana when another Category 4 hurricane, Laura, slammed ashore there. This year, crews from southwest Louisiana came east to help.

“We’ve had a few storms hit back home and you kind of know how it is when you’ve been out of power,” said Robbie Davis, a lineman from Georgia. So many people in southeast Louisiana have no where to go, he said: “Out here, these folks’ homes got destroyed, businesses got destroyed.”

It can be dangerous work — two men believed to be electrocuted died helping restore power in Alabama.

The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins.

“You only work in this kind of area when you’re in south Louisiana. I can assure you, you don’t get this anywhere else,” says Jon Hise, a Sparks Energy foreman working with a crew in Houma to reset power lines. “It’s nasty. It’s chest deep. You can’t walk because the growth.”

As SLECA staff work to restore power to their slice of southeastern Louisiana, they have also been struggling with hurricane damage themselves. The general manager wears clothes from the Salvation Army after his home was severely damaged and looted. Coworkers have helped each other tarp damaged roofs. The company is operating out of trailers in their Houma headquarters after Ida peeled off the roof. Bourg is living in a trailer with his wife and two Boston terriers — his kids are staying with his in-laws — after Ida wrecked his house.

There’s also the toll of seeing large swaths of their coverage area so utterly destroyed. For many, getting power is just the first step in a long rebuilding process. Peters gets emotional when he talks of the dedication of his staff as well as the damage he’s seen among longtime customers.

“We’ve had storms before,” he said. “But the devastation was nothing of this magnitude.”

The US owes a debt to Haiti. Experts explain why their shared history led to a migrant crisis on the US’s border.

Insider

The US owes a debt to Haiti. Experts explain why their shared history led to a migrant crisis on the US’s border.

Christine Jean-Baptiste September 26, 2021

Masked protestor holding up a 'US hands off Haiti!' sign.
Demonstrators outside the US Citizenship and Immigration Service office in Miami on February 20 demand that the Biden administration cease deporting Haitian immigrants. Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Biden administration faced backlash for dispersing Haitian migrants at the US-Mexico border.
  • Experts say Haiti’s history of foreign interference has shaped perspectives and stunted progress.
  • They estimate France and the US owe Haiti billions in reparations for colonialism and occupation.

In the past week, nearly 14,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, were found in Del Rio, Texas, seeking asylum following a destructive earthquake and the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

Instead of providing shelter and refuge for the migrants, the US continued to deport Haitians, who have for years been targets of imperialism and xenophobia, in what experts described as history repeating itself.

“Anything you have read about Haiti thus far will remind you of an all too common and limited narrative; the first Black Republic is ‘the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,'” the artist Gina Athena Ulysse wrote in a 2019 essay for Tikkun.

“What almost none of them will mention is that Haiti also has one of the highest numbers of millionaires per capita in the region,” she added.

Haitian scholars spoke with Insider about how assumptions and stereotypes about the island perpetuate limited narratives that can put Haitian migrants at risk.

“Cuba, Haiti, and all others are as complex as the US, Canada, and European countries, and allowing room for these latter to have complexity while expecting uniformity from these islands or island nations are quite uninformed and essentialist,” Manoucheka Celeste, an associate professor at the University of Florida, told Insider.

Political interference in Haitian politics shapes global perspectives

Haiti and the United States share an intertwined history as the second-oldest and oldest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

But the US refused to acknowledge Haiti’s 1804 independence from France for nearly 60 years, kicking off centuries of military coups and political meddling that devastated the Caribbean nation – from a decades-long US invasion and occupation in 1915 to disastrous aid and relief efforts today.

Experts have estimated that Haiti is owed billions in reparations from France and the US for the impact of colonialism, slavery, and the US’s theft of an uninhabited island that Haiti owns.

Celeste, whose book “Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the African Diaspora: Travelling Blackness” details this shared history, added that US imperialism influenced how Haitians are received and treated abroad today.

“Haitian immigrants have been particularly stigmatized, echoing images of Haiti as poor, dangerous, sick, and this impacts how we are received in communities, schools, employment opportunities, and all aspects of everyday life,” she said.

The Caribbean island has also been misrepresented through the media, experts said.

A misconception that Nadeve Menard, an author and professor of literature at the École Normale Supérieure of Université d’État d’Haïti, has noticed is that the current political climate is somehow unique.

“What is happening here is very much part of larger global networks,” she told Insider. “Aid industries need aid recipients, for example. The sophisticated weapons that gangs here are displaying are being sold by someone.”

Ménard added that “many people, Haitians and non-Haitians alike, are benefiting from what is happening here in very concrete ways.”

Coverage of climate disasters and corruption worsens anti-Haitian bias
Haitian migrant holding hand of child wearing an American flag, stars-and-stripes, hat.
Haitian migrants at a shelter. Thousands of Haitian migrants recently gathered in makeshift camps at the US-Mexico border. Pedro Pardo/ARP/Getty Images

Celeste’s research suggests that even though the Caribbean is an incredibly diverse region racially, ethnically, and linguistically, it makes international or US news only when “bad” or “strange” things happen, like a hurricane or a political crisis.

For example, there was a spike in global news coverage of Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake in 2010, with outlets gaining readers and revenue from a disaster affecting the country.

Experts said it was like clockwork that the media feeds on disaster reporting when it’s convenient.

Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida, said Haiti was seen as a failure whose problems are of its own creation, not of the outside world’s, and certainly not the fault of consistently accumulated historical injustices.

“We treat Haiti as a pariah that is undeserving of respect, let alone sovereignty,”

Following the president’s assassination, a rotation of Haitian politicians have wanted to claim power. That insecurity was made worse when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck Haiti’s southwest – and that exacerbated the migration crisis at the US’s southern border.

Amid the political reshuffles, publications have been quick to point out Haiti’s extensive corruption. Scholars call on observers to ask themselves why that is.

“It is problematic to imply that corruption only happens in Haiti or happens here more than elsewhere,” Ménard said.

“Nations like to present themselves as paragons of virtue, but often their representatives are very much implicated in the corruption they point to in other places,” she added.

On Tuesday afternoon, as images of US Customs and Border Protection agents grabbing Haitian migrants near Del Rio circulated, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said President Joe Biden found the footage “horrific” and “horrible.”

Psaki said the administration would launch an investigation to “get to the bottom of what happened.”

The Associated Press had reported days earlier that the Biden administration had kept deporting Haitian migrants after the images surfaced, with more flights scheduled.

Advocates say centering Haiti and its diaspora is key to progress

Scholars say the treatment of Haitians is based on racial stereotypes that existed long before this year. They challenged people moved by the recent events in Haiti to learn about Haiti from Haitians.

“The way to counter stereotypes is to go to sources where Haitians are speaking for themselves,” the Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat told Insider in an email, encouraging people to listen to Haitian youth and elders.

“We are not a monolith. Haiti is not a monolith. We don’t always agree. We have layers. We contain multitudes,” she added.

With the dehumanizing visuals of Haitian migrants at the border this week were renewed calls to help Haiti – a common sentiment on the internet.

In 2010, after the earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people, many celebrities could be found organizing concerts and benefits, singing songs, and centering themselves in the cause.

Edwidge Danticat

Danticat encouraged supporters to immerse themselves in Haitian-led cultural initiatives, including reading Haitian writers, listening to Haitian music, and taking in Haitian art and even social media.

Politicians and public figures have used their platforms to take a stance and remind people of the role of international communities in Haiti.

“I think the reason why we’re not seeing more help, if I’m going to be frank about it, is because they are Haitian,” Sunny Hostin, a cohost of “The View,” said on Wednesday.

Following Haiti’s traumatic year, many Haitian scholars have called out performative advocacy in the form of emojis, prayers and hashtags on social media.

Marlene Daut, a professor of African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia, described the public outcry as opportunistic and meaningless, highlighting the role of disaster capitalism on other Caribbean islands, like in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria.

“I think a lot of people, when they do charity, they want it to be easy,” she said. “If you really want to do good things for Haitians, then it involves the difficult work of finding out what that would be.”

With the diaspora and allies holding North America and Europe accountable, Daut said, it “could be a moment for a reckoning, if we allow it to be, and for it to not get swept under the rug again, and also to not repeat the past.”

“We need to remember that these things happened,” she said, “because there’s a dangerous moment right now in Haiti.”

What Impact Will Climate Change Have On The Housing Market?

Benzinga

What Impact Will Climate Change Have On The Housing Market?

Phil Hall September 23, 2021

The physical destruction created by climate change will create significant and potentially severe changes in the actions of lenders, mortgage investors, federal programs and policies, appraisers, insurance companies, builders and homebuyers, according to the new report “The Impact of Climate Change on Housing and Housing Finance” published by the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Research Institute for Housing America.

Identifying The Risks: The report follows the recommendations of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures in dividing climate-related risks into physical risks (adverse weather events and natural disasters) and transition risks (policy and legal, technology, market and reputation risks). The report stressed that forecasting the severity of the risks is difficult because there is no course of action for addressing the problem.

“Projecting future climate change and its impacts remains challenging primarily because the outcome depends crucially on the actions chosen by governments, industries, and households,” said Sean Becketti, the report’s author and former chief economist at Freddie Mac (OTC: FMCC). “Given the uncertainty over those actions, the future path of climate change could continue to get much worse.”

One of the most significant challenges posed by climate change, the report warned, was to the already-beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

“Increases this century in insurance claims generated by climate change are likely to stretch the NFIP to the breaking point, facing homebuyers, lenders, GSEs [government-sponsored enterprises] and governments with a host of difficult questions,” the report observed. “In addition, independent estimates of flood risk suggest that the NFIP currently excludes 2/3 of the at-risk properties, suggesting that the current government approach to disaster recovery may become too expensive to sustain in future.”

Furthermore, no housing market will be spared from climate change’s wrath, the report noted, predicting that urban areas will face increased risks from extreme weather, flooding, air pollution, water scarcity, rising sea levels and storm surges while rural areas face the threat of dramatic changes in water availability, food security and agricultural incomes.

For mortgage lenders, servicers and investors, the report continued, climate change “may increase mortgage default and prepayment risks, trigger adverse selection in the types of loans that are sold to the GSEs, increase the volatility of house prices, and even produce significant climate migration.”

Identifying The Response: In order to mitigate the challenges that climate change will bring, the report offered strategies to review including “incorporating building modifications into new construction (easier) and existing buildings (more difficult and more expensive) and increasing the resiliency of communities through infrastructure improvements and standards.”

The report acknowledged that such strategies “are costly and require a high degree of adoption and cooperation that does not currently exist,” but it predicted that federal regulators and investors will apply pressure to ensure this is not shrugged off.

“In considering the example of estimating the impact of increased flooding on mortgage default risk, it is apparent that better and more standardized predictors of environmental risks will be needed,” the report concluded.

Photo: David Mark from Pixabay.

Moderna vs. Pfizer: Both Knockouts, but One Seems to Have the Edge

Moderna vs. Pfizer: Both Knockouts, but One Seems to Have the Edge

Pfizer-BioNTech, left, and Moderna COVID-19 doses ready for patients at Cornerstone Pharmacy in Little Rock, Ark., on March 8, 2021. (Rory Doyle/The New York Times)
Pfizer-BioNTech, left, and Moderna COVID-19 doses ready for patients at Cornerstone Pharmacy in Little Rock, Ark., on March 8, 2021. (Rory Doyle/The New York Times)

 

It was a constant refrain from federal health officials after the coronavirus vaccines were authorized: These shots are all equally effective.

That has turned out not to be true.

Roughly 221 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been dispensed thus far in the United States, compared with about 150 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine. In a half-dozen studies published over the past few weeks, Moderna’s vaccine appeared to be more protective than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the months after immunization.

Research published on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against hospitalization fell from 91% to 77% after a four-month period following the second shot. The Moderna vaccine showed no decline over the same period.

If the efficacy gap continues to widen, it may have implications for the debate on booster shots. Federal agencies this week are evaluating the need for a third shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for some high-risk groups, including older adults.

Scientists who were initially skeptical of the reported differences between the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have slowly become convinced that the disparity is small but real.

“Our baseline assumption is that the mRNA vaccines are functioning similarly, but then you start to see a separation,” said Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at Emory University in Atlanta. “It’s not a huge difference, but at least it’s consistent.”

But the discrepancy is small and the real-world consequences uncertain, because both vaccines are still highly effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization, she and others cautioned.

“Yes, likely a real difference, probably reflecting what’s in the two vials,” said John Moore, a virus expert at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “But truly, how much does this difference matter in the real world?”

“It’s not appropriate for people who took Pfizer to be freaking out that they got an inferior vaccine.”

Even in the original clinical trials of the three vaccines eventually authorized in the United States — made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — it was clear that the J&J vaccine had a lower efficacy than the other two. Research since then has borne out that trend, although J&J announced this week that a second dose of its vaccine boosts its efficacy to levels comparable to the others.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines rely on the same mRNA platform, and in the initial clinical trials, they had remarkably similar efficacy against symptomatic infection: 95% for Pfizer-BioNTech and 94% for Moderna. This was in part why they were described as more or less equivalent.

The subtleties emerged over time. The vaccines have never been directly compared in a carefully designed study, so the data indicating that effects vary are based mostly on observations.

Results from those studies can be skewed by any number of factors, including the location, the age of the population vaccinated, when they were immunized and the timing between the doses, Dean said.

For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was rolled out weeks before Moderna’s to priority groups — older adults and health care workers. Immunity wanes more quickly in older adults, so a decline observed in a group consisting mostly of older adults may give the false impression that the protection from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine falls off quickly.

Given those caveats, “I’m not convinced that there truly is a difference,” said Dr. Bill Gruber, a senior vice president at Pfizer. “I don’t think there’s sufficient data out there to make that claim.”

But by now, the observational studies have delivered results from a number of locations — Qatar, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, several other states in the United States — and in health care workers, hospitalized veterans or the general population.

Moderna’s efficacy against severe illness in those studies ranged from 92% to 100%. Pfizer-BioNTech’s numbers trailed by 10 to 15 percentage points.

The two vaccines have diverged more sharply in their efficacy against infection. Protection from both waned over time, particularly after the arrival of the delta variant, but the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s values fell lower. In two of the recent studies, the Moderna vaccine did better at preventing illness by more than 30 percentage points.

A few studies found that the levels of antibodies produced by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were one-third to one-half those produced by the Moderna vaccine. Yet that decrease is trivial, Moore said: For comparison, there is a more than 100-fold difference in the antibody levels among healthy individuals.

Still, other experts said that the corpus of evidence pointed to a disparity that would be worth exploring, at least in people who respond weakly to vaccines, including older adults and immuno-compromised people.

“At the end of the day, I do think there are subtle but real differences between Moderna and Pfizer,” Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, an immunologist and physician at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who was a co-author of one such study, published in JAMA Network Open this month. “In high-risk populations, it might be relevant. It’d be good if people took a close look.”

“Pfizer is a big hammer,” Wilson added, but “Moderna is a sledgehammer.”

Several factors might underlie the divergence. The vaccines differ in their dosing and in the time between the first and second doses.

Vaccine manufacturers would typically have enough time to test a range of doses before choosing one — and they have done such testing for their trials of the coronavirus vaccine in children.

But in the midst of a pandemic last year, the companies had to guess at the optimal dose. Pfizer went with 30 micrograms, Moderna with 100.

Moderna’s vaccine relies on a lipid nanoparticle, which can deliver the larger dose. And the first and second shots of that vaccine are staggered by four weeks, compared with three for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The extra week may give immune cells more time to proliferate before the second dose, said Dr. Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer. “We need to keep studying this and to do more research, but I think it’s plausible.”

Moderna’s team recently showed that a half dose of the vaccine still sent antibody levels soaring. Based on those data, the company asked the FDA this month to authorize 50 micrograms, the half dose, as a booster shot.

There is limited evidence showing the effect of that dose, and none on how long the higher antibody levels might last. Federal regulators are reviewing Moderna’s data to determine whether the available data are sufficient to authorize a booster shot of the half dose.

Ultimately, both vaccines are still holding steady against severe illness and hospitalization, especially in people younger than 65, Moore said.

Scientists had initially hoped that the vaccines would have an efficacy of 50% or 60%. “We would have all seen that as great result and been happy with it,” he said. “Fast forward to now, and we’re debating whether 96.3% vaccine efficacy for Moderna versus 88.8% for Pfizer is a big deal.”

‘We were them:’ Vietnamese Americans help Afghan refugees

Associated Press

‘We were them:’ Vietnamese Americans help Afghan refugees

 

WESTMINSTER, Calif. (AP) — In the faces of Afghans desperate to leave their country after U.S. forces withdrew, Thuy Do sees her own family, decades earlier and thousands of miles away.

A 39-year-old doctor in Seattle, Washington, Do remembers hearing how her parents sought to leave Saigon after Vietnam fell to communist rule in 1975 and the American military airlifted out allies in the final hours. It took years for her family to finally get out of the country, after several failed attempts, and make their way to the United States, carrying two sets of clothes a piece and a combined $300. When they finally arrived, she was 9 years old.

These stories and early memories drove Do and her husband Jesse Robbins to reach out to assist Afghans fleeing their country now. The couple has a vacant rental home and decided to offer it up to refugee resettlement groups, which furnished it for newly arriving Afghans in need of a place to stay.

“We were them 40 years ago,” Do said. “With the fall of Saigon in 1975, this was us.”

Television images of Afghans vying for spots on U.S. military flights out of Kabul evoked memories for many Vietnamese Americans of their own attempts to escape a falling Saigon more than four decades ago. The crisis in Afghanistan has reopened painful wounds for many of the country’s 2 million Vietnamese Americans and driven some elders to open up about their harrowing departures to younger generations for the first time.

It has also spurred many Vietnamese Americans to donate money to refugee resettlement groups and raise their hands to help by providing housing, furniture and legal assistance to newly arriving Afghans. Less tangible but still essential, some also said they want to offer critical guidance they know refugees and new immigrants need: how to shop at a supermarket, enroll kids in school and drive a car in the United States.

Since the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have come to the United States, settling in communities from California to Virginia. Today, Vietnamese Americans are the sixth-largest immigrant group in the United States. Many settled in California’s Orange County after arriving initially at the nearby Camp Pendleton military base and today have a strong voice in local politics.

“We lived through this and we can’t help but feel that we are brethren in our common experience,” Andrew Do, who fled Saigon with his family a day before it fell to communism and today chairs the county’s board of supervisors, said during a recent press conference in the area known as “Little Saigon.”

The U.S. had long announced plans to withdraw from Afghanistan after a 20-year war. But the final exit was much more frantic, with more than 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members killed in an attack on the Kabul airport.

In the last two weeks of August, the U.S. evacuated 31,000 people from Afghanistan, three-quarters of them Afghans who supported American military efforts during the extensive operations. But many Afghan allies were left behind with no clear way out of the landlocked nation under strict Taliban control.

Similarly, many Vietnamese Americans recall how they couldn’t get out before the impending fall of Saigon to communism. They stayed behind and faced long spells in reeducation camps in retaliation for their allegiance to the Americans who had fought in their country. Once they were allowed to return to their families, many Vietnamese left and took small boats onto the seas, hoping to escape and survive.

For some families, the journey took years and many failed attempts, which is why many Vietnamese Americans view the departure of the U.S. military from Afghanistan not as the end of the crisis, but the beginning.

“We have to remember now is the time to lay a foundation for a humanitarian crisis that may last long past the moment the last U.S. help leaves the Afghan space,” said Thanh Tan, a Seattle filmmaker who started a group for Vietnamese Americans seeking to assist Afghans called Viets4Afghans. Her own family, she said, made the trip four years after the U.S. left Vietnam. “We have to be prepared because people will do whatever it takes to survive.”

Afghans arriving in the United States may have a special status for those who supported U.S. military operations, or may have been sponsored to come by relatives already here. Others are expected to arrive as refuges or seek permission to travel to the United States under a process known as humanitarian parole and apply for asylum or other legal protection once they are here.

For parole, Afghans need the support of a U.S. citizen or legal resident, and some Vietnamese Americans have signed up to sponsor people they have never met, said Tuấn ĐinhJanelle, director of field at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. He said a coalition of legal and community groups has secured sponsors for 2,000 Afghans seeking parole. His sister, Vy Dinh, said she’s sponsoring a family of 10 including women in danger for working in medicine and teaching. “As soon as he called, I said, ‘Yes, I am in,’” she said.

Other efforts have focused on fundraising for refugee resettlement groups. Vietnamese and Afghan American artists held a benefit concert this month in Southern California to raise money to assist Afghan refugees. The event titled “United for Love” was broadcast on Vietnamese language television and raised more than $160,000, according to Saigon Broadcasting Television Network.

It also aired on Afghan American satellite television, said Bilal Askaryar, an Afghan American advocate and spokesperson for the #WelcomeWithDignity campaign aimed at supporting asylum seekers. “They saw the need. They saw the parallels,” Askaryar said. “It’s really powerful to see that they saw that link of common humanity between the Afghan community and the Vietnamese community. We’ve been really touched and inspired.”

Thi Do, an immigration attorney in Sacramento, California, said he is also doing what he can to help. He was a boy when Saigon fell and his father, who served in the South Vietnamese army, was sent to a reeducation camp. When he returned, the family set out by boat into the ocean, hoping to reach a country that would take them.

Do remembers how the boat bumped up against dead bodies floating on the water and how his father apologized for putting him and his siblings in danger before throwing overboard his ID and keys from Vietnam. “’He said, ‘I would rather die here than go back there,’” Do said. They eventually reached Thailand and Malaysia, both countries that forced them back out to sea until they got to Indonesia and were processed at a refugee camp.

Decades later, Do said he has helped people fleeing persecution in his work as a lawyer, but until now nothing that has reminded him so much of Vietnam. He’s working with Afghan families who are filing petitions to bring their relatives here, but what happens next is complicated with no U.S. embassy in Kabul to process the papers and no guarantee the relatives will make it to a third country to get them.

“I see a lot of myself in those children who were running on the tarmac at the airport,” he said.

Biden Puts Another Former Public Defender Onto A U.S. Appeals Court

Biden Puts Another Former Public Defender Onto A U.S. Appeals Court

Veronica Rossman, a former public defender, now holds a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. (Photo: Handout . via Reuters)
Veronica Rossman, a former public defender, now holds a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. (Photo: Handout . via Reuters)

 

The Senate voted Monday night to confirm Veronica Rossman to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ― making her the only former public defender on that court and one of just a handful within the entire U.S. appeals court system.

Rossman, who is currently senior counsel at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming, was confirmed 50-42. Every Democrat present voted for her, along with two Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine). See the full tally here.

Rossman’s confirmation is a win for President Joe Biden on two fronts. She adds to his current record of confirming more judges than any president in the last 50 years by this point in their terms. And she is the latest example of Biden following through on a promise to bring badly needed diversity to the nation’s courts ― both in terms of demographics like race and gender but also in terms of professional backgrounds.

Rossman, 49, has spent most of her career as a public defender, representing people in court who could not afford an attorney. Public defenders are hugely underrepresented on the nation’s courts; the vast majority of federal judges are former prosecutors and corporate attorneys. Rossman brings a much different perspective to the bench, having defended more than 250 indigent clients in her more than 10 years at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming.

“Her work on behalf of the indigent, defending the Constitution and the rights of those accused of crimes will bring much needed balance to a bench overwhelmed with former prosecutors and corporate lawyers,” said Chris Kang of Demand Justice, a progressive judicial advocacy group.

Expanding professional diversity on federal courts can also affect case outcomes and the development of legal precedent. Judges with backgrounds as prosecutors or corporate lawyers are significantly more likely to rule in favor of employers in workplace disputes, according to a February study conducted by Emory University law professor Joanna Shepherd. (Demand Justice provided some financial support for this study.)

Rossman is now one of just eight active judges in the entirety of the U.S. appeals court system with experience as a public defender. That’s out of a total of 174 currently active judges on U.S. appeals courts.

Put another way: Only about 4.6% of all active U.S. appeals court judges have experience as a public defender.

Biden is responsible for nominating four of those eight U.S. appeals court judges, just eight months into his presidency. The other four were nominated by President Barack Obama over the course of his eight years in the White House.

“As former public defenders, civil rights attorneys, labor organizers and more, Biden’s judicial nominees bring a wealth of professional and lived experience that will be invaluable to the federal judiciary,” said Rakim Brooks, president of the judicial advocacy group Alliance for Justice. “Our democracy works best when people have faith and trust in our courts, so it is essential that our courts are fully representative of the diversity of our nation ― not just the wealthy and the powerful.”

Killed ‘for defending our planet’: Latin America is deadliest place for environmentalists

Killed ‘for defending our planet’: Latin America is deadliest place for environmentalists

 

MEXICO CITY — Diana Gabriela Aranguren could not believe what the news was saying. She looked at the TV screen over and over, trying to understand how it was possible that her friend had been killed.

“He had just made a post on Facebook at 6 p.m. to participate in an activity and a bit later, the tragedy came on the news,” Aranguren, a teacher and environmental activist, said about the death of Oscar Eyraud Adams, an Indigenous Mexican activist and leader who was killed on Sept. 24, 2020, in Tecate, Baja California.

Eyraud Adams fought for the water rights of the Indigenous Kumiai, who have been affected by the excessive use of the region’s aquifers by large beer and wine companies.

His social media post, which were the last words he wrote, was a call for an event called “Looking for rain in the desert.”

A group of armed men entered his residence and shot him dead; the only thing they took was his cellphone and a notebook with his notes. At least 13 bullet casings, of different calibers, were found by authorities at the crime scene.

The case of Eyraud Adams, and many others, are chronicled in “Last Line of Defence: The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against land and environmental defenders,” the latest report from Global Witness, an environmental rights organization which is calling out the increase in attacks against activists.

“You never think that defending our right to water and life will lead to death,” Aranguren said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo. “In Mexico, the people who defend their territory and natural resources are being killed, they make us disappear and they criminalize us.”

In 2020, there were 227 deadly attacks, an increase in the historical figures since 2019, the deadliest year for environmental activists, with 212 murders.

The most chilling data is in Latin America, where 165 deaths took place — three-quarters of the attacks.

Almost 3 out of 4 attacks occurred in the region, which includes 7 of the 10 deadliest countries.

Colombia, with 65 deaths, and Mexico, with 30, lead the world ranking of murders of land and environmental defenders. Other countries with worrying figures are Brazil and Honduras, with 20 and 17 murders, respectively.

Killed ‘for defending our planet’

At least 30 percent of the attacks are related to the exploitation of resources in activities such as logging, the construction of hydroelectric dams, mining projects and large-scale agribusiness.

“The people who are killed every year for defending their local populations were also defending the planet we share. In particular, our climate. Activities that flood our atmosphere with carbon, such as fossil fuel extraction and deforestation, are at the center of many of these murders,” environmentalist and author Bill McKibben wrote in Spanish in the report’s foreword.

The logging and deforestation industry is linked to the highest number of murders in 2020, with 23 cases recorded in countries such as Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines.

Global Witness claims its data doesn’t reflect “the true dimension of the problem” because restrictions on press freedom and coercive tactics such as death threats, illegal surveillance, intimidation, sexual violence and criminalization can contribute to an underreporting of assaults.

Colombia and Mexico lead in killings

According to the organization, since the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, an average of four environmental defenders have been killed each week.

For the second consecutive year, Colombia registered the highest number of activists killed, totaling 65 executions. The attacks occurred in “the context of generalized attacks against human rights defenders and community leaders,” the report stated. “In many of the most remote areas, paramilitary and criminal groups increased their control through the exercise of violence.”

Almost half of the country’s homicides were against people engaged in small-scale agriculture and a third of the activists were Indigenous or Afro-Colombians.

The entrance to Kumiai territory in Juntas de Nejí, Baja California. (Felipe Luna / Global Witness)
The entrance to Kumiai territory in Juntas de Nejí, Baja California. (Felipe Luna / Global Witness)

Countries used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to implement repressive methods against their populations — “an opportunity to take drastic measures against civil society while companies advanced with destructive projects,” the researchers state.

The closures and quarantines made it easier to locate activists, “and that is why many of the homicides were perpetrated in their homes or in their surroundings,” Lourdes Castro, coordinator of the Somos Defensores program, said in an interview with Mongabay Latam.

“Paradoxically, the violent people had the possibility to walk freely through the territories,” Castro said.

Another worrying case is the situation for Mexican activists. Global Witness registered 30 lethal attacks in Mexico, which represents an increase of 67 percent compared to 2019 when 18 deaths were counted.

“Forest exploitation was linked to almost a third of these attacks and half of all attacks in the country were directed against Indigenous communities,” the researchers said. Moreover, most of them go unpunished, since 95 percent of murders in the country don’t result in a legal case.

Gabriela Carreón, human rights manager of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda), said 2020 was the most violent year for environmental activists during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As of July, Cemda has registered 14 murders against environmental activists. That same month, the Mexican Ministry of the Interior acknowledged that at least 68 human rights defenders and 43 journalists have been assassinated so far during López Obrador’s tenure.

Fighting the hellish heat in Baja California

Heat kills in the Mexican state of Baja California. In 2019, at least eight heat-related deaths were recorded in Mexicali, the state’s capital; in 2020 they were 83.

“In the last 70 years, the temperature in Mexico has a clear and conclusive increasing trend,” Jorge Zavala Hidalgo, general coordinator of the National Meteorological Service, told Noticias Telemundo. “In the last decade it has increased very rapidly and that rise is even higher than the average for the planet.”

The slain environmental activist, Eyraud Adams, had lived through the region’s searing temperatures and lack of water.

In 2017, he had opposed the installation of the Constellation Brands brewery, which according to the company would use about 1.8 billion gallons a year for their production.

“Big companies have access to water much easier. This is not fair because we need water to survive,” Eyraud Adams had said, his comments quoted in the report. He promoted solutions to guarantee the preservation of water resources for the Kumiai and avoid the exodus of young people from the region.

“He helped us make what is happening in Baja California visible, but he paid for it with his life,” said his friend Aranguren, who is part of Mexicali Resiste, an environmental rights organization.

“It is sad because these murders take away our children’s future security,” she said.

“We feel great fear because we have to keep fighting. There are still megaprojects in this area that take away our water,” Aranguren said. “But if we don’t protest, no one will come to help us.”

Op-Ed: Are Supreme Court justices ‘partisan hacks’? All the evidence says yes

Op-Ed: Are Supreme Court justices ‘partisan hacks’? All the evidence says yes

President Donald Trump and Amy Coney Barrett stand on the Blue Room Balcony after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas administered the Constitutional Oath to her on the South Lawn of the White House White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. Barrett was confirmed to be a Supreme Court justice by the Senate earlier in the evening. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Trump and Amy Coney Barrett at the White House after she took the constitutional oath on Oct. 26, 2020, to become a Supreme Court justice. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

 

If Supreme Court justices don’t want to be seen as “partisan hacks,” they should not act like them.

In a speech last week at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville Law School, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said, “This court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.” She added, “Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties.”

Setting aside the irony of uttering these statements at an event honoring Sen. Mitch McConnell, who blocked the confirmation of Merrick Garland to the court and rushed through the confirmation of Barrett precisely because of their ideologies, the reality is that time and again the court’s Republican majority has handed down decisions strongly favoring Republicans in the political process.

Does Barrett really expect people to believe that is a coincidence?

In the same speech, Barrett reiterated that she is an originalist, one who believes that the Constitution must be interpreted to mean what it might have meant at the time it was adopted. Yet not one of the court’s decisions about the election process favoring Republicans can possibly be defended on originalist grounds, which shows how wrong her claims really are.

In a series of rulings, with all of the Republican-appointed justices in the majority and the Democratic-appointed justices dissenting, the court has strongly tilted the scales in elections in favor of Republicans. In 2010, in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the court ruled 5 to 4 that corporations can spend unlimited amounts to get candidates elected or defeated.

Business interests, which overwhelmingly favor Republican candidates in their campaign expenditures, outspend unions by more than 15 to 1. There is no plausible argument that the original meaning of the 1st Amendment included a right of corporations to spend unlimited amounts in election campaigns. Neither political expenditures nor corporations, as we know them today, even existed at the founding of this country.

In decisions in 2013 and this year, the court’s conservative majority eviscerated the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a manner that helps Republicans and hurts voters of color and Democrats. In 2013, in Shelby County vs. Holder, the court, 5 to 4, nullified the law’s requirement that states with a history of race discrimination get preclearance before making a significant change in their election systems. Every one of these states where preclearance was required was controlled by Republicans.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority and said that Congress violated the principle of equal state sovereignty by not treating all states the same. Nowhere is that found in the Constitution — and it was certainly not the understanding when the 14th Amendment was adopted by a Congress that imposed Reconstruction, including military rule, on Southern states.

After the Shelby County case, Republican-controlled governments in states like Texas and North Carolina immediately put in place restrictions on voting that had been previously denied preclearance.

In July, the court, now with six Republican appointees, gutted another crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits state and local governments from having election systems that discriminate against minority voters. Congress amended this provision in 1982 to provide that the law is violated if there is proof of a racially discriminatory impact.

The case, Brnovich vs. Democratic National Committee, involved two provisions of Arizona law that the United States Court of Appeals found had a discriminatory effect against voters of color. But Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Republican-appointed justices, imposed many requirements that will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to prove a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

He said, for example, that courts must consider whether the new restrictions are worse than what existed in 1982 when the law was amended, all other ways for people to vote, and the state’s interest in preventing fraud. For any restriction on voting, a court can now say it isn’t as bad as some that existed earlier, or that there are enough other ways to vote, or that the state’s interests are enough to justify the law. In her dissent in Brnovich, Justice Elena Kagan noted there’s new evidence that “the Shelby ruling may jeopardize decades of voting rights progress.”

Conservative justices, who say they focus on the text of the law in interpreting statutes, created limits on the reach of the Voting Rights Act that are nowhere mentioned in it. The result is that the laws adopted by Republican legislatures in Georgia, Florida, Texas and other states are now far more likely to be upheld.

In these and other cases, the Republican justices changed the law to dramatically favor Republicans in the political process. Barrett’s protest against the justices being seen as “partisan hacks” rings hollow when that is what they have become. And it is risible to say that “judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties.” I would challenge her to give a single instance where the conservative justices on the court took positions that were at odds with the views of the Republican Party.

The most obvious example, of course, is abortion. The GOP vehemently opposes abortion rights and Republican presidents have appointed justices with that view. No one should have been surprised when the five conservative justices refused to enjoin the Texas law banning abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy even though it blatantly violates the constitutional right to abortion.

Supreme Court decisions always have been and always will be a product of the ideology of the justices. No one — least of all a Supreme Court justice — should pretend otherwise.

Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law and a contributing writer to Opinion. He is the author most recently of “Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights.”