Sustained Outrage

Updating media rules for courts

Interesting read in today’s Boston Globe about efforts by Massachusetts’ high court to modernize its rules governing media in the courtroom.

While courts in Massachusetts currently allow only two cameras in a legal proceeding — one for television broadcasts, one for print media — the new rules propose allowing a third for web outlets.

The article continues:

The court is also seeking to strike a balance between journalism in the 21st century and security concerns in criminal trials that have already led to a ban of cellphones, especially those with cameras, in courthouses statewide.

Even with the new rules, judges still have the authority to ban cameras in certain circumstances. Also, journalists would still be barred from recording jurors at all times during a trial, whether it is a civil or criminal matter.

The rules would allow journalists to use laptop computers and other electronic devices while court is in session, provided it is not disruptive.

Before a person can head into a courtroom with a camera, they must first register with the court’s Public Information Office and also be required to show they qualify as journalists under a new definition worked out by a special media-court panel.

In a summary released yesterday, the court said “the news media would be defined as those who are regularly engaged in the reporting and publishing of news or information about matters of public interest.’’

Ah, “disruptive.” It’s all in the eye of the beholder, I guess. Or up to the person wearing the black robe.

The great Andrew Schneider, now working for AOL News, is kicking off another series of articles about the dangers of asbestos and the government’s refusal to do anything about it:

Americans living in millions of homes will soon crawl into their attics to collect their holiday decorations. With those colorful lights and ornaments could come invisible and deadly asbestos fibers that decades from now may destroy or end the lives of some of the celebrants.

For years the government has known that the attics and walls of as many as 35 million homes and businesses are insulated with Zonolite, which contains lethal asbestos-tainted vermiculite. Some medical authorities believe that people are still dying because of it.

… Yet AOL News has documented that the government has steadfastly refused even to issue widespread warnings to the public about the dangers of a product that was became a popular insulation in the 1940s and continued to be installed in U.S. homes through the 1990s.

The tale of this confirmed killer includes political intrigue, White House intervention, industry meddling and the failure of three Environmental Protection Agency administrators to act on their promises.

Read the whole report here.

Schneider has been writing about asbestos for many years, uncovering the death toll in the town of Libby, Montana, and also producing the book, An Air That Kills about that scandal.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at Sustained Outrage. In case you’re looking for a little reading to help you digest some of that turkey, here are some stories we enjoyed this week:

There were four survivors in the Aug. 9 plane crash that killed former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others in Alaska. In a harrowing account, the Washington Post tells the story of their 18-hour wait, wondering if rescuers would find them before the Alaskan wilderness claimed even more lives. The site of another crash 12 days later in the same region was never located, even after searches spent 15 days covering more than 60,000 air miles as they combed the area looking in vain for survivors.

Efforts to regulate “pill mills” in Florida have been derailed, temporarily at least, by new cost saving legislation requiring legislative approval for regulation that costs more than $1 million over five years, the Miami Herald reported. The prescription pain medication law was intended to curb doctor-shopping by unmonitored pill seekers and allowed for unannounced inspections of pain clinics.

Because of a plume of groundwater contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical hexavalent chromium, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is interested in buying 100 properties in Hinkley, Calif., according to the Los Angeles Times. The utility reached a $333 million settlement with 660 residents of the town in 1997, but the plume of tainted water, which stretched 2 1/2 miles long and one mile wide, has moved about 1,800 feet beyond a containment boundary set by the company in 2008.

NY’s former top environmental official talks fracturing

Today’s must-read is an interview by ProPublica’s Marie C. Baca with Pete Grannis, who, until he was fired last month, was commissioner of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. While in office, Grannis created the first fracturing chemical disclosure rules in the country.

With some of the northernmost reaches of the Marcellus shale formation located in New York, Grannis has dealt with many of the same issues confronting regulators in West Virginia. (See previous coverage here, here, here, here and here.)

Here are a few questions and answers, but I encourage anyone interested to read the entire interview, which occurred over two sessions.

What was it like to balance two mandates from the state: to protect New York’s environment, and to develop those resources for profit?

Well, there are obviously pressures on both sides. My job as a regulator was to make sure that legal activity took place in a way that didn’t harm the environment. We really committed huge resources to making sure that if this process is to proceed it will be done safely. … We were very clear that we weren’t going to rush ahead and then wonder if we did it right later on.

But in the summer of 2008, the DEC seemed prepared to issue permits for hydraulic fracturing without exploring the possibility of water contamination or having a clear idea of how drillers would treat the wastewater.

That is not true. Right from the beginning we understood that this issue required additional review. We were under no obligation to push for something beyond the generic environmental impact statement, but we felt like it was the right thing to do. Some of the accusations you’re talking about have been extraordinary, but the truth is that the department has a phenomenal track record of regulating drilling, and we’ve set the most stringent standards in the country for hydraulic fracturing.

Was there ever a time when you felt the dual mandates from the state created a conflict for you?

For most of my environmental stakeholders, the people I know and work with, there was near-universal condemnation of the possibility of drilling. I felt tremendous pressure from friends and colleagues to make sure this was done right. On the other hand, the landowners in some of these poor communities across the southern tier saw [drilling] as a salvation. They were sold a bill of goods that their payments were contingent upon drilling activities beginning sooner. They were putting pressure on us, the administration and their local legislators, to move more quickly. But I never thought of it as a real conflict. I knew very clearly what our responsibilities were. I knew there was this divide between the fact that this was a legal activity and the fact that it has considerable disruptive potential. This drilling is an unattractive, disruptive, commercial activity with requirements that need to be met. I was never in any doubt that if we found a path forward it would be in a way that didn’t affect the environment.

Continue reading…

What we’re reading: Veterans Day edition

Today we join with the rest of the country in honoring the men and women who have served in the military, as well as those who continue to serve.

The number of women veterans who are homeless has doubled over the last decade to 6,500, NPR reported. Most of them are under the age of 35, an indication of how many women are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Re-acclimating to civilian life can be difficult, and sometimes female veterans are hesitant to turn to the male-dominated Veterans’ Administration for help. “The groups that [the VA] did have around the area were almost all men,” one female veteran told NPR. “And most of them did not believe that women were combat veterans. Most of them didn’t believe women were veterans period — that we don’t serve that much of a purpose in the military. And definitely in a combat zone.”

A year in Afghanistan spent detecting bombs has given members of Oregon Army National Guard’s 162nd Engineer Company a new appreciation of life, as this story in the Oregonian illustrates. On one day in March, two sergeants survived explosions from four separate improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Both Staff Sgt. Joe Seeger and Sgt. Brandon Bertilson were awarded the Bronze Star. The article notes: “Among the 222 awards members of the unit received were 62 Army Commendation Medals, four mechanics badges, five Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars.”

Vanity Fair profiled Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam, in its December issue. As a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, First Platoon, Battle Company, in Afghanistan in October 2007, Giunta saw two enemy combatants carrying off his close friend, Sgt. Josh Brennan. Giunta shot and killed one of the men and wounded the other, rescuing his friend, who had been hit eight times and died at a U.S. base the next day. Says Giunta: “Every single person that I’ve been with deserves to wear it, deserves to . . .They are just as much of me as I am. This isn’t a one-man show.”

Near the Kandahar Air Field, soldiers play hockey, substituting sneakers and a ball for skates and a puck, Stars and Stripes reported. The rink, which was completed in 2006 mostly by Canadian engineers, has a floor rather than ice, and has become a central park of non-combat life for many serving in Kandahar. There is now a Kandahar Hockey League, with two four-month seasons a year. Out of 24 teams, only one is made up of American soldiers, with most of the others composed of Canadians. But the rink and the league has attracted attention from the rest of the hockey world: Last spring, former National Hockey League players brought the Stanley Cup for a visit.

Another Thursday, another look at work that drew our attention and admiration:

Working quietly behind the scenes, a private prison company helped get Arizona’s immigration law passed, which, if it stands, will create a demand for — you guessed it — prisons, NPR reported this week. Of the 37 Arizona legislators who co-sponsored the bill that would allow law enforcement to arrest and detain anyone who could not show that they were in the country legally, 31 accepted money from private prison companies or their lobbyists. Part 2 of NPR’s investigation details how an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council allows companies to influence — sometimes even draft — legislation away from public scrutiny.

Just days before the election, FactCheck.org looked at some of the television ads being run in races for state Supreme Courts, and found that some of the most vicious attack ads were false, misleading or taken out of context. Of note, the article took issue with an ad that accused three Iowa justices of “ignoring the will of the people,” “legislating from the bench” and “imposing their own values” in a ruling that allowed gay marriage. The ad overlooked that the decision was unanimous, that public opinion in Iowa is divided and that the court found the law was unconstitutional. On election day, all three of the justices, who were up for a retention vote, were ousted from the court, the first time since 1962 that any sitting justice has not won a retention vote in Iowa, the Des Moines Register reported.

Two chemical companies have requested trade secret status for the fluids they want to use in fracturing in Wyoming, ProPublica.org reported. As of Sept. 15, companies are required to report the chemicals they intend to use in natural gas wells before the wells are approved. The request for trade secret status must be approved by either the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission or a state court judge, or else the companies must disclose the makeup of their fracturing fluids. Environmentalists hope that the new disclosure requirements will help provide comprehensive data on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination.

Here’s another batch of reporting we admired this week.

In a joint investigation with PBS’ Frontline, ProPublica.org concluded that even before the explosion and massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP had a significantly worse record than others in the industry on safety and spills. “Current and former workers and executives said the company repeatedly cut corners, let alarm and safety systems languish and skipped essential maintenance that could have prevented a number of explosions and spills. Internal BP documents support these claims,” ProPublica noted. More information on the Frontline broadcast can be found here.

How safe is America from a cyber attack by a foreign hackers? This eye-opening piece in The New Yorker takes a look at the growing military-cyber complex, noting that some experts believe that America is increasingly vulnerable via cyberspace. Other experts suggest that there is a big difference between cyber espionage, which targets military and business intelligence, and cyber war, in which likely targets include American infrastructure, such as the power grid.

After another massive release of documents on the war in Iraq by Wikileaks, reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, Wired Magazine focused on what the new information reveals about the Central Intelligence Agency’s presence in Iraq. “The documents show an active ‘OGA’ (an acronym for ‘Other Government Agency,’ usually a reference to the CIA) acting as a paramilitary force — raiding insurgent hideouts, hunting for mysterious militants and getting caught up in roadside shootouts. The Agency even appeared to have its own base, near the town of Ramadi,” the article states.

Oregon judge considers allowing KBR appeal

A civil lawsuit by members of the Oregon National Guard who were exposed to toxic chemicals at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in Iraq in 2003 against the civilian contractors overseeing the project is proceeding, even while a federal judge considers allowing the contractor to appeal his ruling.

As Julie Sullivan at The Oregonian reported, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Papak told attorneys for both sides to prepare for trial, but did not rule out the possibility of allowing KBR to pursue its appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Attorneys for Kellogg, Brown and Root seek an unusual appeal of Papak’s early decisions. They claim that suing a battlefield contractor for the U.S. military raises “unprecedented” legal questions that should be decided by the higher court first. Other federal judges have ruled in KBR’s favor in suits in Indiana and West Virginia, saying their courts lack jurisdiction.

The Oregon judge twice has rejected those arguments.

If the 9th agrees to hear the case, the process could delay a trial for years — or end the case outright.

Oregon Army National Guard vets sued KBR last year, claiming the company downplayed or disregarded hexavalent chromium at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant. The soldiers say they were sickened by their exposure to the cancer-causing chemical.

Attorneys for the Oregon vets — about 34 are expected to be on the final case — say KBR is stalling.

“We just want to get these guys in court,” David Sugerman, of Portland, told the judge.

KBR attorney Jeffrey Eden, of Portland argued that “If we are correct and we end up in 24 months with a jury verdict and the 9th Circuit agrees with us, we have just wasted two years and countless resources.”

As I noted earlier, the West Virginia plaintiffs have joined a lawsuit in Texas, where KBR is headquartered. That case is scheduled to go to trial in May 2012.

You can read previous coverage of KBR and sodium dichromate exposure here, here, here and here. KBR has posted a factsheet here.

D-I-V-O-R-C-E in C-R-W?

A friend with sharp eyes brought to my attention that Charleston, W.Va., made the Daily Beast’s list of the top 50 “hotspots for marital dischord.” In fact, it cracked the top 5, coming in at #3, coming in right behind Panama City, Fla., and Sierra Vista, Ariz.

For the record, one other metropolitan area in West Virginia (and Ohio) made the list: Parkersburg/Marietta, at #44.

The site doesn’t really explain its mathematical calculations or the formula it used to come up with the rankings very well, but Charleston earned its bronze medal based on the 13.4 percent of our population that is divorced and a 2009 divorce rate of 5.6 percent.

I must admit, this one has me scratching my head a little bit. Anyone have any theories on why couples just can’t seem to stay together in Charleston?

Another installment of our weekly look at some of our media colleagues’ work.

Federal prosecutors unsealed an eye-popping indictment in Southern Florida Thursday, alleging that Miami-based American Therapeutic Corp., which runs a chain of mental health centers, with trying to defraud Medicare out of $200 million, the Miami Herald reported. One of the services the company billed Medicare for was group therapy for elderly patients, many of whom had Alzheimer’s disease. Medical experts told the paper that these kind of patients, who have suffered severe loss of brain function, do not benefit from mental health counseling.

Although the war in Afghanistan hasn’t been grabbing many headlines recently, this piece by National Public Radio does a good job at capturing just how complicated and trecherous fighting can be along the Pakistan border. In one compelling scene, members of the 3-327 Infantry, 101st Airborne Division’s Alpha Company prepare to head out to attempt the rescue of a downed Chinook helicopter, loaded down with all the water and ammunition they can carry. “Every element out there under contact right now,” Staff Sgt. Scott Mark told his troops. “You got friendlies everywhere, and Taliban everywhere. It’s a hot LZ [landing zone], OK?”

In the age of smartphones and mobile applications, it’s easy to feel disconnected from our friends and neighbors when everyone has their nose buried in their phone. But location-based social networking helps some people have real, face-to-face encounters, according to the Boston Globe. “As location-based services grow, businesses are increasingly trying to tap into the market, offering discounts or other rewards to those who check in upon arriving at a bar or coffee shop. Think of it as an updated version of the frequent-user card,” the article notes. “But retailers aren’t the only ones doing the wooing. There’s an app that lets users view singles who are at the same location; other apps can tip off users about which bars have the highest ratio of females or males.”

3-327 Infantry, 101st Airborne Division,