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Archive for the ‘Justice’ Category

Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Race on July 16, 2018 at 7:17 am
by PAUL STREET
 

The People as a Problem to be Contained

As the United States’ depressed, distracted, disorganized, and demobilized populace watches the vicious white-nationalist and authoritarian Donald Trump and the arch-reactionary Republican Party craft a Supreme Court yet further to the right of majority public opinion, the worst of the nation’s slave-owning Founders might just be heard chuckling in their graves.

Democracy – the rule of the majority – was the last thing the nation’s aristo-republican Founders wanted to see break out in their new republic. Drawn from the elite propertied segments in the new nation, most of the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention shared their compatriot John Jay’s view that “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” As the celebrated U.S. historian Richard Hofstader noted in his classic 1948 text, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It:“In their minds, liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” Democracy was a dangerous concept to them, conferring “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”

Protection of “property” (meaning the people who owned large amounts of it) was “the main object of government” for all but one of the U.S. Constitution’s framers (James Wilson), as constitutional historian Jennifer Nedelsky has noted. The non-affluent, non-propertied and slightly propertied popular majority was for the framers what Nedelsky calls “a problem to be contained.”

Anyone who doubts the anti-democratic character of the Founders’ world view should read The Federalist Papers, written by the leading advocates of the U.S. Constitution to garner support for their preferred form of national government in 1787 and 1788. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued that democracies were “spectacles of turbulence … incompatible with … the rights of property.” Democratic governments gave rise, Madison felt, to “factious leaders” who could “kindle a flame” among dangerous masses for “wicked projects” like “abolition of debts” and “an equal division of property. … Extend the [geographic] sphere [of the U.S. republic],” Madison wrote, and it becomes “more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and act in union with each other.”

At the Constitutional Convention, Madison backed an upper U.S. legislative assembly (the Senate) of elite property holders meant to check a coming “increase of population” certain to “increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings” [emphasis added]. “These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former.”

In Federalist No. 35, the future first U.S. secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, argued that the common people found their proper political representatives among the small class of wealthy merchant capitalists. “The idea of an actual representation of all classes of people by persons of each class,” Hamilton wrote, “is altogether visionary.” The “weight and superior acquirements of the merchants render them more equal” than the “other classes,” Hamilton proclaimed.

Somebody tell Lin-Manuel Miranda!

Checkmating Popular Sovereignty

The New England clergyman Jeremy Belknap captured the fundamental idea behind the U.S. Founders’ curious notion of what they liked to call “popular government.” “Let it stand as a principle,” Belknap wrote to an associate in the late 1780s, “that government originates from the people, but let the people be taught…that they are unable to govern themselves.”

It wasn’t just about teaching “the people” that they were incapable of self-rule, however. The Constitution was designed to make sure the popularity majority couldn’t govern itself even if it thought it could. The rich white fathers crafted a form of “popular government” (their deceptive term) that was a monument to popular incapacitation.

The U.S. Constitution divided the federal government into three parts, with just one-half of one of those three parts (the House of Representatives) elected directly by “the people”—a category that excluded blacks, women, Native Americans and property-less white males (that is, most people in the early republic). It set up elaborate checks and balances to prevent the possibility of the laboring multitude influencing policy. It introduced a system of intermittent, curiously time-staggered elections (two years for the House, six years for the Senate, and four years for the presidency) precisely to discourage sweeping popular electoral rebellions It created a Supreme Court appointed for life (by the president with confirmation power restricted to the Senate) with veto power over legislation or executive actions that might too strongly bear the imprint of the “secretly sigh[ing]” multitude.

It sanctified the epic “un-freedom” and “anti-democracy” of black slavery, permitting slave states to count their disenfranchised chattel toward their congressional apportionment in the House of Representatives.

The Constitution’s curious Electoral College provision guaranteed that the popular majority would not directly select the U.S. president—even on the limited basis of one vote for each propertied white male. It is still in effect.

U.S. Americans did not directly vote for U.S. senators for the first 125 years of the federal government.  The Constitution said that senators were to be elected by state legislatures, something that was changed only by the Seventeen Amendment in 1913.

It is true that the Constitution’s Article V provided a mechanism technically permitting “We the People” to alter the nation’s charter. But the process for seriously amending the U.S. Constitution was and remains exceedingly difficult, short of revolution and/or  civil war. As the progressive Constitution critic Daniel Lazare observes,

“Moments after establishing the people as the omnipotent makers and breakers of constitutions, [the 1787 U.S. Constitution] announced that … [c]hanging so much as a comma in the Constitution would require the approval of two-thirds of each house of Congress plus three-fourths of the states. … The people did not assert their sovereignty in Philadelphia in 1787. Rather, the founders invoked it. Once they uttered the magic incantation, moreover, they hastened to put the genie back in the bottle by declaring the people all but powerless to alter their own plan of government.”

U.S. progressives have long advocated constitutional amendments meant to more properly align U.S. politics and policy with public opinion and basic democratic values. But Article V is too steep a barrier for that, on purpose. Under its rule today, 13 of the nation’s 50 states can disallow constitutional changes while containing just more than 4 percent of the nation’s population. (It took the secession and military defeat of the slave South between 1861 and 1865 [the Civil War] to pass amendments abolishing slavery and granting citizenship and the suffrage to former slaves (new forms of Black slavery and racist disenfranchisement nonetheless took hold in the South during and after the Reconstruction era).

Don’t like that?  Too bad. Simon – well a bunch of slave-owners and other really rich guys and their holy national charter near the end of the 18th century – says.

 

Indirect Selection

The U.S. Constitution was written and enacted late in the1780s, when the infant republic’s masters wore powdered wigs, slavery was still the law of the land (as it would for nearly eight more decades), and (speaking of powdered wigs) the Bourbons still ruled in France.  Here we are more than two-and-a-quarter centuries later, still dealing on numerous levels with the purposefully authoritarian consequences of the nation’s founding charter.

It’s a little, well, pathetic.

The Constitution is no small part of how a majority-progressive nation that votes primarily (though with little enthusiasm) for a centrist party, the Democrats (viewed unfavorably by 51 percent of U.S.-Americans) is ruled by an ever more right-wing  government led by an arch- reactionary white-nationalist party, the Republicans.  So what if the GOP is viewed unfavorably by 59 percent of the U.S. populationand backs a hated president who is disapproved of by a super-majority of the citizenry?

Look at the Electoral College system, designed to curb democracy and expressly crafted to elevate the power of the slave states. By giving each state an extra vote for both senators they send to Washington (no matter how small or large each state’s populations), it triples the clout of the nation’s eight smallest states and doubles that of the next six smallest states relative to their populations.

For the fifth time in history and the second in this century, the Electoral College in 2017 installed a president who failed to win the national popular vote. Donald Trump, the biggest popular vote-loser to ever inhabit the White House, is a racist, sexist, authoritarian, uber-plutocratic, and malignant megalomaniac and narcissist. He’s an ecocidal climate change-denier who should not be allowed anywhere near the nation’s energy policy or its nuclear codes. It’s not for nothing that even the depressing and highly unpopular “lying neoliberal warmonger”Hillary Clinton polled 2.8 million more votesthan he did last November.

The extensively despised orange monstrosity made it into the world’s most powerful and dangerous job thanks in no small part to the Electoral College, which renders presidential campaigning irrelevant (and close to nonexistent) in most of the nation, gives absurdly outsized weight to disproportionately white and right-leaning rural states and openly violates the core democratic principles of majority rule and one-person, one-vote.

Along with some help from the constitutionally super-empowered Supreme Court, the openly ludicrous Electoral College is also part of how popular vote-loser George W. Bush (who criminally invaded Iraq partly out of the belief that doing so was God’s will) ascended to the presidency in 2000-2001.

The Senate is even more skewed to the right. The GOP holds a majority in the upper chamber thanks in no small part to the simple and expressly anti-democratic slant the Constitution gives—in the name of “equal suffrage for the states”—the 2 percent of Americans who live in the nation’s nine smallest states have the same amount of senatorial representation as the 51 percent who live in the nation’s nine largest states.

Wyoming, home to more than 586,000 Americans, holds U.S. senatorial parity with California, where more than 39 million Americans reside. Due to “a growing population shift from the agricultural interior to crowded corridors along the coast,” Lazare explains, “it is possible now to win the majority of the U.S. Senate with just 17.6 percent of the popular vote.”

That is completely insane, from a democratic perspective anyway.

It’s all coming into ugly authoritarian and racist play right now to create a right-wing Supreme Court ready to rule in defiance of majority progressive public opinion for a generation at least. Thanks to Trump’s Electoral College victory, to the Republican-run U.S. Senate’s “check and balance” refusal to let Barack Obama appoint a Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia, and to the resignation of two Supreme Court justice since Trump came in, the ultra-right GOP is about to solidify its control the appointed-for-life Supreme Court by getting its second hard-right justice appointed to the high court within one year.

Don’t like it?  Too bad. Simon, I mean the Constitution, says!

 

Gerrymander Rules

And then there’s the House of Representatives, where the widely hated Republican Party enjoys a 47-vote majority even though it outpolled the (admittedly dismal) Democrats by just over 1 percent in House races in 2016.  Even with the Trump-tainted GOP finding approval from just  one in three U.S.-Americans and with Republicans 17 percent less enthusiastic than Democrats about voting in the 2018 mid-term elections, it is not inconceivable that the rightmost of the two parties could retain its hold over the House in 2018 and 2020.

This reflects the widespread geographic manipulation of House district lines in such a fashion as to unduly advantage the Republican Party.  This partisan-geopolitical gerrymandering process is led by the nation’s mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures.  This is in accord with the federalist principle laid out in Article 4, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which proclaims that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof…” Effectively, this means that state legislatures are granted primary authority to regulate federal elections, including how their congressional district lines are to be drawn.

It is true that Article 4 goes on to say that “the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Chusing Senators.” Technically, then, Congress is the ultimate authority, and may supersede state laws on how districts are drawn.  It has done this in the past, requiring (in 1967) single-member districts (compelling voters to elect only one candidate to represent their district) and forcing states to enhance racial and ethnic minority groups’ representation. The federal courts have interpreted the Constitution to require that House districts hold roughly equal populations.

Still, Congress has never mandated a congressional redistricting process, something that has left states free to draw districts in accord with partisan considerations. And good luck getting “our” right-wing federal judiciary not to back  Republican challenges to any serious efforts at national democratic redistricting reform.

 

“The American People Have Input Every Four Years”

In some rich nations operating with parliamentary systems, terrible presidents or prime ministers can be forced to call or accede to new national elections. Such an action is of course unthinkable in the U.S.  Simon – I mean the slaveholders 18thCentury Constitution- says that qualified voters go to the polls to select presidents once every four years, national senators (apportioned two per state regardless of wildly different population sizes among the nation’s 50 states) once every six years, and (lower) House representatives (apportioned in accord with population but along now strictly gerrymandered geographical lines) once every two years. As George W. Bush’s White House spokesperson Dana Perino explained in March of 2008 when asked if the citizenry should have “input” on U.S. foreign policy: “You had your input. The American people have input every four years, and that’s the way our system is set up” [emphasis added].

Perino was on all-too-strong constitutional ground. So was Trump when he tweeted in response to the historic mass demonstrations that followed his inauguration: “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” Never mind that most of the marchers did vote (for the horrific “lying neoliberal warmonger”) or that most U.S. citizens think public opinion should matter to presidents between elections.

Constitutional Simon Says you get to select a U.S. president in a voting booth for two minutes or so once every 1,460 days. Well, except you don’t really vote directly for the president. The U.S. presidential vote is filtered through the explicitly anti-democratic Electoral College, which has (to repeat) delivered the White House to a loser of the popular in 2 of the last presidential elections.

You get to vote for a US House member in a voting both for a few minute once every 730 days. You get to vote for each of your US Senators once every 1095 days.

To make matters worse, the choices on offer to voters in U.S. presidential, Senate, and House elections are almost always (with painfully few exceptions) reflect a narrow selection  between two corporate and imperialist candidates, one a Democrat and the other a Republican – representatives of dollar-drenched political organizations that function as “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904). That, too, is related to the Constitution, as I will suggest below.

You don’t vote for Supreme Court justices, really. The president, for whom you don’t vote directly, does, subject to approval only from the upper Congressional body, the Senate, which absurdly overrepresents the rural and white populace. And the Supremes are appointed for life, which can be a long time.

 

Hello, Mike Pence?

You can push “your” Congressional “representatives” to advocate Trump’s impeachment (by the House) and removal (by the Senate). Trump has certainly given the House numerous grounds for impeachment, but the barriers to removal are high. The two houses of Congress, the absurdly gerrymandered House and the ridiculously unrepresentative Senate, are both under the control of the president’s broadly hated nominal party, the Republicans, and the Republicans are determined to get everything they can from Trump when it comes to advancing their radically regressive, racist, ecocidal and arch-plutocratic agenda. It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to remove a president. It’s never happened (though Richard Nixon would have likely been impeached and removed had he not resigned).

But what would impeachment and removal give the nation under the preposterously revered U.S. Constitution but the presidency of arch-right-wing Republican Mike Pence? You think Trump is scary? Pence is a white nationalist Christian proto-fascist under whose rule the hard-right agenda that most of the populace hates might be advanced more effectively than it is ever under Trump.

Constitution says that impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate makes the monstrous homophobe Pence POTUS.

Don’t like it?  Too bad. Simon, I mean the Constitution, says.

 

Money Is Speech: Simon Says

So “suck it up, buttercup” and get back in shape for the next strictly time-staggered and Constitutionally mandated quadrennial electoral extravaganza to vote a Democrat into the White House, right? Really? Why bother? Notice the quote marks I used three two paragraphs above (“You can push ‘your’ Congressional ‘representatives’”). Everyone who follows US politics and policy with more than three functioning gray cells knows very well that both of the nation’s reigning two “viable” political parties are controlled by the wealthy few in New Gilded Age America, where the top 1 Percent owns more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth and a nearly equivalent percentage of its “democratically elected” office-holders. As the distinguished political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Martin Gilens (Princeton) show in their important new volume Democracy in America?:

“the best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have had much more political clout. When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless . . . The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves . . . Majorities of Americans favor . . . programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut ‘corporate welfare.’ Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs] (emphasis added).”

Whichever party or whatever party configuration holds power in Washington and the state capitals, mammon reigns in the United States, where, Page and Gilens note, “government policy . . . reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the pre-approved, money-vetted candidates for federal office” (emphasis added).

Thanks to this “oligarchy,” as Page and Gilens call it, the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to key measures of social health: economic disparity, inter-generational social mobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, literacy/numeracy, and environmental sustainability and resilience

The Democrats are every bit as corporatized and sold-out to the financial plutocracy and its military empire—to the capitalist class and system that emerged out of national development under the rule of the propertied elite the founders worked so brilliantly to protect—as the Republicans. This is thanks in part to the outrageously outsize role that big-money campaign contributions play in determining the outcomes of the nation’s evermore absurdly expensive elections.

And that role is traceable at least in part to the U.S. Constitution. The ridiculously worshipped Founders created the Supreme Court as a critical appointed-for-life check on the popular will. And in two landmark decisions, Buckley v. Valeo(1976) and Citizens United(2010), the high court has ruled that private campaign contributions are “free speech” and that there are no “constitutional” limits to be set on how much the rich and powerful can invest in the giant organized bribery project that is U.S. campaign finance.

As the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is supposed to have said in 1941, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Protecting and expanding “wealth concentrated in the hands of the few” was the central purpose of government as conceived by the nation’s idiotically honored Founders.  They brilliantly constructed a charter, a set of rules for national policy and politics, designed to advance that purpose.

 

Left Electoral Dreaming

Let’s imagine that voters were still somehow able to get a domestically progressive and egalitarian, social-democratic Democrat—imagine a younger, more telegenic and gutsier Bernie Sanders (who damn near made it even at his advanced age in 2016)—into the White House. How much difference would it make? Besides the obstructionist hell he or she would catch from the corporate media and the blockage he or she would face from the Supreme Court, he or she would likely face steady, additional, potent “check and balance” impediments from corporate-captive Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Along with corporate media ownership and big-money campaign-finance power – both among the many interrelated oligarchic outcomes of the capitalism brought to us by the propertied elite that the founders/framers carefully and skillfully safeguard from the populace in the name of “popular government” – the over-representation of right-wing rural states in the U.S. Senate militates against a progressive takeover of Congress. So does the widespread systematic gerrymandering of districts in the House of Representatives.

Want to form a politically relevant and more genuinely progressive and egalitarian third party beyond the radically regressive and reactionary Republicans and the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats? The founders’ holy charter is not on your side. It encourages winner-take-all, first-past-the-post elections tied to specific geographical district lines. There’s no provision for proportional representation to accommodate and make legislative room for third or fourth parties not yet miraculously ready to compete and win pluralities in their relevant electoral jurisdictions.

Around the planet, constitutions do not last very long. As Zachary Elkins, Thomas Ginsburg and James Melton noted in their book, The Endurance of National Constitutions (2009), “The mean lifespan [of national constitutions] across the world since 1789 is 17 years. … [Since] World War I, the average lifespan of a constitution … [is] 12 years.”

The U.S. is different. Its absurdly venerated and purposefully democracy-disabling Constitution has remained in place with occasional substantive amendments for 230 years. We’ve bowed down and prayed to the ridiculously fetishized, openly anti-democratic U.S Constitution for as long as I can remember.

 

Simon Says Suicide

It’s pathetic and self-destructive. Trying to advance democracy and protect the common good under the procedures of a slaveowners’ charter designed precisely to cripple and prevent popular self-rule and to protect and advance oligarchy is a fools’ game.  The rules of the game were written to guarantee popular defeat a very long time ago. It’s long past time to stop playing by those rules altogether – and to write a new rule book, a people’s constitution.

Surrender is not an option, however, given capitalism’s Constitutionally-encouraged war on the common good, with its now evidently grave ecological consequences.  In our struggles to save humanity and other sentient beings from the ever more imminent fate of capitalogenic Geocide, we must demand a new national charter, committed to the Holy Founders’ ultimate nightmare: popular sovereignty in defense and advance of the commons, broadly understood.  Playing “Simon Says” with Virginia slaveholders and merchant capitalists and their clever statesmen from the 1780s is mass suicide in 2018.

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Here’s How the EPA and Pentagon Deliberately Hid a Growing Toxic Threat from Americans It’s long been known that, in certain concentrations, these compounds could be dangerous if they got into the water supply.

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Public Health, Workplace exposure on July 11, 2018 at 8:37 am

By Abrahm Lustgarten / ProPublica
July 9, 2018, 8:47 AM GMT

The chemicals once seemed near magical, able to repel water, oil and stains.

By the 1970s, DuPont and 3M had used them to develop Teflon and Scotchgard, and they slipped into an array of everyday products, from gum wrappers to sofas to frying pans to carpets. Known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, they were a boon to the military, too, which used them in foam that snuffed out explosive oil and fuel fires.

It’s long been known that, in certain concentrations, the compounds could be dangerous if they got into water or if people breathed dust or ate food that contained them. Tests showed they accumulated in the blood of chemical factory workers and residents living nearby, and studies linked some of the chemicals to cancers and birth defects.
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Now two new analyses of drinking water data and the science used to analyze it make clear the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense have downplayed the public threat posed by these chemicals. Far more people have likely been exposed to dangerous levels of them than has previously been reported because contamination from them is more widespread than has ever been officially acknowledged.

Moreover, ProPublica has found, the government’s understatement of the threat appears to be no accident.

The EPA and the Department of Defense calibrated water tests to exclude some harmful levels of contamination and only register especially high concentrations of chemicals, according to the vice president of one testing company. Several prominent scientists told ProPublica the DOD chose to use tests that would identify only a handful of chemicals rather than more advanced tests that the agencies’ own scientists had helped develop which could potentially identify the presence of hundreds of additional compounds.

The first analysis, contained in an EPA contractor’s PowerPoint presentation, shows that one chemical — the PFAS most understood to cause harm — is 24 times more prevalent in public drinking water than the EPA has reported. Based on this, the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization whose scientists have studied PFAS pollution, has estimated that as many as 110 million Americans are now at risk of being exposed to PFAS chemicals.

In the second analysis, ProPublica compared how the military checks for and measures PFAS-related contamination to what’s identified by more advanced tests. We found that the military relied on tests which are not capable of detecting all the PFAS chemicals it believed to be present. Even then, it underreported its results, sharing only a small part if its data. We also found that the military’s own research programs had retested several of those defense sites using more advanced testing technology and identified significantly more pollution than what the military reported to Congress.
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Even before the troubling new information about PFAS chemicals emerged, the government had acknowledged problems relating to them were spreading. Past EPA water testing, however incomplete, identified drinking water contamination across 33 states that Harvard researchers estimated affected some 6 million people. The military suspected drinking water at more than 660 U.S. defense sites where firefighting foam was used could be contaminated; earlier this year, it announced it had confirmed contamination in 36 drinking water systems and in 90 groundwater sites on or near its facilities.

The new analyses suggest these findings likely represent just a fraction of the true number of people and drinking water systems affected.

In written responses to questions, the EPA did not directly address whether it had understated contamination from PFAS chemicals. The agency said it had confidence in its current testing procedures and had set detection limits at appropriate levels. It also stated that it is taking steps towards regulating some PFAS compounds and registering them as “hazardous substances,” a classification that triggers additional oversight under waste and pollution laws.
The agency will “take concrete actions to ensure PFAS is thoroughly addressed and all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water,” then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who recently resigned, said in the written statement to ProPublica in May.

The Department of Defense also responded to questions in writing, defending its testing methods as the best available and calling it difficult to fully assess risks from PFAS because the EPA has not regulated these chemicals. A DOD spokeswoman said the Pentagon’s research group has a program underway aimed at enhancing the test methods and detecting more PFAS compounds, but suggested that no alternatives were ready for use. She did not answer questions about why the agency reported contamination levels for only two chemicals to Congress when it would have had data on many more, stating only that the Pentagon “is committed to protecting human health and the environment.”
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Environmental experts aren’t convinced.

“Widespread contamination may be harming the health of millions or even tens of millions of Americans and the government is intentionally covering up some of the evidence,” said Erik Olson, a senior director for health, food and agriculture initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview. The EPA and Defense Department “have done all they can to sort of drag their feet and avoid meaningful regulatory action in making significant investment in cleanups.”

In May, a Politico report revealed that the EPA and the White House, along with the Defense Department, had pressured a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to withhold a health study expected to warn that people exposed to PFAS chemicals face greater health risks than were previously understood. That report was quietly released in mid-June and, indeed, estimated safe levels of exposure are seven to 10 times smaller than what the EPA has said.

Such a determination could spur stricter limits on exposure than the EPA appears to have considered. Paired with an emerging realization that testing by the EPA and DOD hasn’t captured the true extent of contamination, the government could be forced to reconceive its approach to these compounds, said David Sedlak, the director of the Institute for Environmental Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped develop one of the most advanced commercial tests for PFAS substances.

“Not talking about it isn’t going to make the problem go away,” Sedlak said. “And because these compounds are forever — they aren’t going to degrade on their own — eventually there is going to be a day of reckoning.”

The PFAS compounds might not exist if weren’t for a lab accident in 1938, when a frozen block of refrigerant turned into an extraordinarily slippery white, waxy mass. A decade later DuPont was manufacturing it as Teflon. 3M developed its own version, the molecularly similar PFOA in 1954, when a chemist inadvertently spilled a mixture of chemicals on her shoe and found the stain was impervious to soap or water. They called it Scotchgard.

These products work, in part, because the chemicals they contain are made up of some of the strongest and most resilient molecular bonds in existence, thanks to a unique structure that keeps them from breaking down. There are thousands of variations, all characterized by extremely strong daisy chains of carbon and fluorine molecules and differentiated mostly by the length of their “tails” — the string of carbon molecules that can be anywhere from two to 14 units long.

In the mid-1970s, with the use of the chemicals proliferating, Dupont and 3M began privately testing the blood of their plant workers and others. The companies had grown increasingly concerned about the toxicity of PFAS compounds, learning that they “bio-accumulate” in food and people and that they could cause harm. But it wasn’t until 2000, when 3M pulled Scotchgard from the market, that the EPA began to investigate PFAS’s potential damage to human health and the environment, and soon after, that the blood tests became public.

At first, the EPA took steps that suggested it would quickly get to the bottom of the problem. Citing the spread of contaminants in water supplies in Minnesota and Ohio, in 2002 the agency launched a “priority review” of some PFAS compounds. It wrote then that exposure can “result in a variety of effects including developmental/reproductive toxicity, liver toxicity and cancer.”

By 2003, the EPA launched its first draft risk assessment for PFOA, typically a substantial step towards establishing strict regulatory standards that limit a chemical’s use and mandate its cleanup. When the draft was released in early 2005, it said that while the epidemiological evidence remained inconclusive, rats tested with PFOA were more likely to develop liver and pancreatic cancers, and there were worrisome signs that workers in plants that manufactured PFOA had a higher risk of dying of prostate cancer.

The EPA also asked industries to voluntarily phase out PFOA-related products, including the firefighting foam, by 2015.

The question was then — and remains today — how much exposure to PFAS chemicals would make people seriously ill?

In 2009, the agency attempted an answer, issuing “provisional” voluntary guidelines for safe levels of the chemicals in drinking water. This meant that for the first time, the government offered a precise, scientific measure for how much of the compounds was too much. But it didn’t mandate those limits, or create a regulation enforceable by law. And even those limits — it would later become clear — proved too loose.

Meanwhile, other instances of water contamination — in Minnesota and Alabama — heightened concerns. One study of 60,000 residents in West Virginia and Ohio exposed to high levels of PFOS and PFOA from a DuPont manufacturing plant and an Army airfield showed they had high rates of thyroid malfunction, testicular and kidney cancers and preeclampsia. The study was completed as part of a roughly $107 million settlement of a lawsuit against DuPont. Studies on animals also linked the chemicals to structural birth defects and dramatic changes in hormone levels.

In 2013, with concern rising over the ubiquity of PFAS compounds, the EPA decided it would test for some of the chemicals in public drinking water systems. The agency regulates chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act and adds new substances to the list based on tests showing they’re widespread enough to pose a national threat. Listing a chemical for such testing is often a step toward creating enforceable regulations for it.

At the same time, the agency began to reconsider the health advisory limit it had established in 2009. In 2016, the agency announced a dramatically lower limit for how much PFAS exposure was safe for people, suggesting a threshold less than one-eighth the amount it had once assured would cause no harm. Under the new guidelines, no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals, less than the size of a single drop in an Olympic pool, were deemed safe.

Yet even this standard remains voluntary and unenforceable. Until there’s a true limit on the concentration of PFAS compounds allowable in drinking water, soil and groundwater — and the classification of PFAS as a hazardous substance — the EPA can’t hold water utilities, companies or other polluters to account. It also can’t compel the Department of Defense to adhere to the standard or clean up contamination.

There is increasing evidence that PFAS contamination is more widespread on and around military bases than previously thought.

The Department of Defense launched a full-scale review of contamination in drinking water systems at its facilities in 2016, despite the lack of clear regulatory limits from the EPA.

This spring the Pentagon reported to Congress that 564 of the 2,445 off-base public and private drinking water systems that it had tested contained PFOS or PFOA above the EPA’s advisory limits. It also announced that groundwater at 90 out of 410 military bases where it tested contained dangerous levels of these two chemicals. A staggering 61 percent of groundwater wells tested exceeded the EPA’s threshold for safety, according to the presentation Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, safety and occupational health, gave to Congress in March. Attending to the problem, several news outlets have reported, would cost the Pentagon at least $2 billion.

In presenting its liabilities to Congress, the Defense Department took an important step in wrestling with a troublesome issue, much as the EPA had in undertaking national data collection.

But both agencies have quite deliberately chosen not to use the most advanced tools or to collect the most comprehensive data on contamination, researchers say.

To identify PFAS compounds in drinking water, the EPA uses a lab test called “Method 537,” which separates microscopic molecules so they can be more easily seen. It’s not the most sophisticated test available, but scientists have used it enough to give them — and regulators — extraordinary confidence in its results. This is the test the EPA chose in 2013, when it directed its labs across the country to test water samples to evaluate emerging PFAS chemical contaminants to help determine whether they should be regulated.

But even though the Method 537 test can detect 14 PFAS compounds, the EPA only asked for data on six of them. The EPA said this was to allow for testing of non-PFAS pollutants, since the agency is only allowed to target a certain number of emerging contaminants in each round of tests.

The agency also set detection thresholds for the six PFAS compounds included as much as 16 times higher than what the test was sensitive enough to detect — so high that only the most extreme cases of contamination were reflected in the federal drinking water dataset.

Indeed, according to a recent presentation by Andrew Eaton, vice president of Eurofins Eaton Analytical, the largest drinking water test lab in the country, which handled testing of more than 10,000 samples from 1,100 public water systems — about 30 percent of the EPA’s water samples overall — vast amounts of detected contamination was ignored by design.

Through its federal water quality reporting, the EPA has said publicly that PFOA was detected in just 1 percent of water samples across the nation. But when Eaton recently went back and reanalyzed the data the EPA didn’t want, he found PFOA was in nearly 24 percent of the samples his company tested.

Another chemical, PFBS, is considered a sentinel because in situations where it is a component of contamination also containing PFAS and PFOA, it travels further and faster in water and shows up months or years ahead in places where PFOA or PFOS are ultimately detected. The EPA has reported that PFBS was found in less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all its water samples — not even one in 100. Eaton’s re-analysis detected the sentinel chemical in nearly one out of eight of samples.

“It basically says the plume is on its way, that’s the leading indicator… PFOS and PFOA is likely on the way to your house,” said Jennifer Field, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University. Field is a leading expert on test methods for PFAS compounds. The Department of Defense helps fund her research. “If you are on the hydrological flow path it’s a matter of time and distance.”

The EPA defended its detection limits, saying its testing protocol is designed to yield consistent, reliable results even if labs conducting the tests are less sophisticated.

But the government is far from certain that lower levels of PFAS compounds than those that count as contamination by the EPA’s definition aren’t health threats. The EPA has repeatedly lowered how much exposure to PFAS compounds it considers acceptable. And when the CDC finally released its health analysis for PFAS compounds in June, it called for limits of one compound to be 10 times lower than the EPA’s current threshold, and another to be seven times lower. Such a standard would be more in line with some states, which already have tougher limits in place. New Jersey, for example, has set its exposure limit for PFOA at roughly one-fifth of what the EPA prescribes.

The EPA’s testing protocol — which only certifies the 537 test, with its limitations — also hasn’t kept up with fast-evolving science around PFAS chemicals. Researchers have identified new forms of the chemicals and, potentially, new dangers from these variants.

In 2016, Field and several other researchers — as part of a Defense Department research program examining water samples from 15 defense sites where firefighting foam was used (researchers declined to name them) — identified 40 new families of PFAS chemicals, consisting of some 240 compounds they’d never seen before.

“You’re starting to get this idea that more complex chemistry was used at these sites than was picked up in the tests, and that’s kind of the punchline,” said Field, of the firefighting foam sites in particular. “There is more mass down there, there are more species and in higher concentrations than what you see.”

Method 537, as a rule, is not capable of detecting these additional compounds. Yet when the Pentagon launched its own water testing program at U.S. bases in 2016, it chose to use the EPA’s outdated testing process, even though a test capable of detecting the presence of dozens of additional PFAS compounds was available. That test, called the Top Assay, was even developed with Defense Department support.

Instead, the Defense Department relied exclusively on the 537 test and then, when it reported its findings to Congress this past March, it offered only the results for PFOS and PFOA and not the other 12 compounds the test process identifies, because that’s what Congress had asked for. Indeed, according to one memorandum from the Department of the Navy, the armed services were explicitly instructed to withhold their extra data — at least for the time being — because it was “not being used to make decisions.”

“If you were going to spend $200 million testing DoD sites across the country, wouldn’t you want to test for all of the chemicals you know you used?” asked Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, who has been active on chemical cleanup issues at Defense sites.

“It’s almost like a deliberate thing, where you’re going to tell people their water is safe to drink, and you know that you have a gap in your testing and you know that you haven’t found all of the chemicals in the water.”

Scientists are only now beginning to understand the importance of the information the government is choosing to leave out. Field has found, for example, not only that there are more variations of PFAS compounds, but that some degrade over time into PFOS or PFOA, or, like PFBS, travel faster in the environment, making them predictors for other contaminants soon to come.

Many of the variants with shorter “tails” — or shorter chains of molecules than the test methods can detect — “are likely to break through systems designed to capture” them, Field and others wrote in a 2017 paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. They are also more likely to elude the water treatment methods the EPA and the Department of Defense are using to clean water identified as contaminated.

The consequence of these systemic blind spots is that “by the time you see PFOS and PFOA you may have been drinking other things for a longer period of time,” Field said.

When Field retested water samples at several U.S. defense sites using the most advanced testing available, she found that many of these obscure additional chemicals were nearly uniformly present — and in huge numbers. At one site, for example, where PFOS was detected at 78,000 parts per trillion, another obscure PFAS compound was present at nearly three times that concentration.

Based on Eaton’s higher-resolution detection rates, scientists at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that researches the dangers of PFAS compounds, have generated new estimates of contamination linked to the chemicals.

They now think more than 110 million people have been exposed to the compounds through their drinking water, more than five times as many as the group had previously estimated.

The EPA “has really underplayed the extent of contamination,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. “The scope of the problem seems to be expanding.”

Rocky Flats: The refuge with a radioactive past The opening of the Rocky Flats wildlife refuge may be close, but the debate over the land’s safety lingers

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Politics, Public Health, Rocky Flats on June 25, 2018 at 7:16 am

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that wildlife refuges ensure that future generations will always have an outdoor place to enjoy nature.

But some people won’t set foot on Rocky Flats once it opens as a wildlife refuge, much less allow their children or grandchildren to go there.

“It’s a shame,” said Stephanie Carroll, president and founder of Rocky Flats Worker Advocacy, “because it’s a beautiful site. But it’s a superfund site. You don’t build homes on a superfund site. And you don’t recreate on a superfund site.”

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,000-acre area of open land bordered by Broomfield, Boulder and Jefferson counties managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although there is no set date, it previously was anticipated to open for public recreation late this summer.

However, seven Colorado school districts have banned field trips to Rocky Flats in the past year — Boulder Valley School District being the first one to do so last year and Denver Public Schools being the most recent, adopting its resolution on April 26. The others are Jefferson County Public Schools, Westminster Public Schools, Adams 12 Five Star, Adams 14 and St. Vrain Valley School District.

With its picturesque views and immense opportunities for viewing wildlife and diverse plants, Rocky Flats was recognized as a special place more than 20 years ago, said Michael D’Agostino, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

Rocky Flats will be an urban refuge, he said.

“A local place where people can reconnect with nature,” D’Agostino said. “It will be a really unique experience for people and an exciting place for outdoor enthusiasts.”

Formerly the location of the nation’s primary producer of plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the opening follows a $7 billion cleanup effort that, despite a 2007 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification that the clean-up complied with all appropriate laws and regulations, some say still wasn’t enough.

“Public health and safety may be at risk from inadequate analysis of whether to open Rocky Flats for hiking, biking and horseback riding,” said Randall Weiner, the attorney representing the citizens groups that filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “What they want are additional environmental reviews that look at the alternatives to, and impacts of, opening Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the public when there is un-remediated plutonium on-site.

Jefferson County Public Health does not have an official stance on the opening of the refuge, however Dr. Mark Johnson, the executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, has a personal opinion he recently shared in a letter to the court in the lawsuit.

“I believe there was/is contamination on Rocky Flats and that some of it has escaped from Rocky Flats into the surrounding neighborhoods, but how much there is/was and what the health consequences of it are/were are not clear to me,” Johnson wrote to the court. “I honestly do not know how dangerous it is to live in its shadow. I believe we have the data to tell us the truth, but I do not believe all of it has been analyzed by truly independent sources.”

The lawsuit is currently in the process of preparing for trial. The refuge will remain closed until it is settled.

Confident in the cleanup

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for the long-term surveillance and maintenance of about 1,300 acres where the core operations and productions of the former plant took place. The wildlife refuge forms a donut-shape around this area, which was formerly the plant’s buffer zone.

By law, the EPA has to conduct an environmental review, including soil and water sampling, of the land every five years to ensure its safety. This is standard practice for any superfund site, D’Agostino said. The last one at Rocky Flats took place in 2017.

“We’re confident in the cleanup and remediation,” D’Agostino said, noting the Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work closely with the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE). “We continue to be confident in their conclusions and recommendations. They are the public health experts.”

According to the CDPHE’s website, plutonium contamination was one of the primary concerns at Rocky Flats, but “following remediation, residual plutonium concentrations in surface soil were below levels of regulatory concern.”

Millirem (mrem) is a way to express radiation exposure.

In a document dated May 2016 produced by the EPA, CDPHE and DOE, one test that was done to gauge radiation at Rocky Flats was calculating the risks for a child and an adult who hypothetically visited the refuge 100 days a year for 2 1/2 hours per day.

“The dose estimate for plutonium for the wildlife refuge visitor child is .2 mrem per year, which is a very small fraction of the average annual dose to (the) U.S. public from all sources,” the document states.

It notes the average annual dose from all sources, including medical such as x-rays and natural such as drinking water, is 620 mrem per year.

Messy history

Still, Carroll believes opening Rocky Flats is too risky, noting the winds and soil can contain a variety of contaminants.

“What’s dangerous about that site is that it wasn’t properly characterized,” Carroll said. “There were a lot more radionuclides than just plutonium on that site.”

She believes the information the public receives is “watered down,” she said, adding, “they don’t get the whole truth.”

Carroll has been involved with advocacy for people who formerly worked with nuclear material since 2001 when she learned the ins-and-outs of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program through her grandfather, who worked at Rocky Flats.

She specializes in beryllium and working with those who may have contracted chronic beryllium disease, also called berylliosis, which is a systemic disease that primarily affects the lungs and is caused by exposure to beryllium, from former employment at Rocky Flats.

Joyce Bolton of Denver is one of the people Carroll has worked with.

“I can’t prove it, but I think it’s still out there,” Bolton said of the possible contaminants at Rocky Flats. “I don’t think they could ever get rid of it.”

Bolton, 78, worked at Rocky Flats from January 1968 until she retired in August 1992. She added she wasn’t sure if people knew the dangers of working at Rocky Flats at the time.

“Back in those days, people wanted jobs,” Bolton said. “And that was a good job — stable, and it paid very well.”

The majority of Bolton’s time was spent in the human resources department, which required her to go all over the plant — but she didn’t know the specifics of what was being made at the plant.

“No clerical person needed to know what they were manufacturing out there,” Bolton said. “We took all the safety measures, but I still got sick.”

It’s hard for the general public to understand the work that went on there, said Michelle Dobrovolny, 53, of Denver who worked at Rocky Flats as an engineering specialist and safeguards and security specialist.

“It was a national security facility. We made bombs,” Dobrovolny said. “We were always taught secrecy, secrecy, secrecy. It was bred into us.”

Dobrovolny worked at Rocky Flats for a total of 18 years, beginning in 1985 when she was 21. She said she was constantly sick while working there — strep throat, pneumonia, sinus infections — and had to take a medical leave in 2001. She has since been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease.

Dobrovolny believes cleanup efforts at Rocky Flats were not sufficient, pointing out that she thinks “they cut corners” and shut down the cleanup about five or six years early.

According to the CDPHE’s website, cleanup of the site was a 10-year process. It included decontaminating and demolishing more than 800 structures and buildings at the plant — five of those were major plutonium facilities and two were major uranium facilities.

But Dobrovolny questions how Building 771 — a facility “notoriously known as one of the most dangerous buildings in the world because of the plutonium” — could possibly be dismantled, she said.

“They will tell you that they did,” Dobrovolny said, “but it is my opinion that they didn’t.”

Natural appeal

Arvada City Councilor Mark McGoff is an avid hiker and plans on hiking Rocky Flats once it opens.

It will be a “new area to explore on foot,” he said. “One more local place to add to my inventory of places to hike.”

He is especially excited that Rocky Flats will serve as an extension of the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail. The Greenway Trail is a trail network that currently connects Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City and Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge in Arvada to the Great Western Open Space in Broomfield and is proposed to extend to Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park.

Well-established Boulder county open space trails to the north of the refuge would also potentially tie into the new trails.

McGoff, 78, has been involved with the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council for about seven years. The council consists of elected officials from 10 municipal governments that neighbor Rocky Flats, three community organizations and one individual. It formed in February 2006 to provide ongoing local government and community oversight of Rocky Flats while providing a public forum for sharing information concerning Rocky Flats.

McGoff mentioned he wouldn’t advocate one way or the other — he noted that some people don’t accept or agree with the findings from the studies. But for him, the presentations from the various agencies on the studies confirm that they are accurate.

“I believe in the science — the evidence is conclusive,” McGoff said. “That tells me that the refuge is safe.”

Presbyterian Church says no to nuclear weapons, yes to Ban Treaty!

In Democracy, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on June 23, 2018 at 7:37 am

By Ralph Hutchison

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, the largest presbyterian ecclesiastical body in the United States, has called on the US government to “begin immediately the process of complete, irreversible and verifiable nuclear disarmament in compliance with our obligations…and the requirements of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” passed last summer at the United Nations.

The General Assembly took its action by adopting an Overture entitled “On Seeking God’s Peace Through Nuclear Disarmament in the 21st Century;” the Overture was approved on the consent agenda of the General Assembly on Wednesday, June 20, 2018 at the church’s biannual meeting in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Overture, which originated in the Peacemaking Committee of the Presbytery of East Tennessee, was sent to the General Assembly by New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina, in February, and received concurrences from the Presbytery de Christo and Muskingham Presbytery before arriving at the church’s national assembly.

Building on the church’s long-standing position of opposition to nuclear weapons, the General Assembly’s action recognizes the urgency of the present moment, when nuclear weapons present a greater threat than at any time in the last fifty years, and the equally unprecedented opportunity presented by the movement to ban nuclear weapons. One hundred twenty-two nations approved the Nuclear Ban Treaty last summer at the United Nations; the United States boycotted the treaty negotiations at the UN and the vote.

The Presbyterian Church also calls on its members to “take actions in defense of God’s creation and our own security, which is inextricably bound to the security of the rest of the world,” and calls on the church to provide resources to educate and mobilize its members in collaboration with other faith communities to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth.

The Presbyterian Church’s action coincides with budget deliberations in the US Congress. The church calls for the elimination of funding for the Life Extension Program for existing nuclear weapons as well as plans for new nuclear weapon production facilities—the Uranium Processing Facility bomb plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and plutonium pit fabrication facilities proposed for Los Alamos (NM) and the Savannah River Site (SC).

“The action of the Presbyterian Church follows on the strong statements coming from the Vatican over the last three years,” said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance which provided resource support during the drafting of the Overture. “We hope it will serve as a model for other faith communities to reawaken a powerful voice that can press our government to make the world safer and more secure.”

The Overture also calls for the Presbyterian Church to work collaboratively with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, and other nongovernmental organizations working for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Trump’s Military Drops a Bomb Every 12 Minutes, and No One Is Talking About It

In Cost, Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Peace, Politics, War on June 20, 2018 at 11:29 pm

By Lee Camp, June 19, 2018, truth dig

Pixabay

We live in a state of perpetual war, and we never feel it. While you get your gelato at the hip place where they put those cute little mint leaves on the side, someone is being bombed in your name. While you argue with the 17-year-old at the movie theater who gave you a small popcorn when you paid for a large, someone is being obliterated in your name. While we sleep and eat and make love and shield our eyes on a sunny day, someone’s home, family, life and body are being blown into a thousand pieces in our names.

Once every 12 minutes.

The United States military drops an explosive with a strength you can hardly comprehend once every 12 minutes. And that’s odd, because we’re technically at war with—let me think—zero countries. So that should mean zero bombs are being dropped, right?

Hell no! You’ve made the common mistake of confusing our world with some sort of rational, cogent world in which our military-industrial complex is under control, the music industry is based on merit and talent, Legos have gently rounded edges (so when you step on them barefoot, it doesn’t feel like an armor-piercing bullet just shot straight up your sphincter), and humans are dealing with climate change like adults rather than burying our heads in the sand while trying to convince ourselves that the sand around our heads isn’t getting really, really hot.

You’re thinking of a rational world. We do not live there.

Instead, we live in a world where the Pentagon is completely and utterly out of control. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the $21 trillion (that’s not a typo) that has gone unaccounted for at the Pentagon. But I didn’t get into the number of bombs that ridiculous amount of money buys us. President George W. Bush’s military dropped 70,000 bombs on five countries. But of that outrageous number, only 57 of those bombs really upset the international community.

Because there were 57 strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen—countries the U.S. was not at war with and places that didn’t have ongoing internal conflicts. And the world was kind of horrified. There was a lot of talk that went something like, “Wait a second. We’re bombing in countries outside of war zones? Is it possible that’s a slippery slope ending in us just bombing all the goddamn time? (Awkward pause.) … Nah. Whichever president follows Bush will be a normal adult person (with a functional brain stem of some sort) and will therefore stop this madness.”

We were so cute and naive back then, like a kitten when it’s first waking up in the morning.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that under President Barack Obama there were “563 strikes, largely by drones, that targeted Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. …”

It’s not just the fact that bombing outside of a war zone is a horrific violation of international law and global norms. It’s also the morally reprehensible targeting of people for pre-crime, which is what we’re doing and what the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report” warned us about. (Humans are very bad at taking the advice of sci-fi dystopias. If we’d listened to “1984,” we wouldn’t have allowed the existence of the National Security Agency. If we listened to “The Terminator,” we wouldn’t have allowed the existence of drone warfare. And if we’d listened to “The Matrix,” we wouldn’t have allowed the vast majority of humans to get lost in a virtual reality of spectacle and vapid nonsense while the oceans die in a swamp of plastic waste. … But you know, who’s counting?)

There was basically a media blackout while Obama was president. You could count on one hand the number of mainstream media reports on the Pentagon’s daily bombing campaigns under Obama. And even when the media did mention it, the underlying sentiment was, “Yeah, but look at how suave Obama is while he’s OK’ing endless destruction. He’s like the Steve McQueen of aerial death.”

And let’s take a moment to wipe away the idea that our “advanced weaponry” hits only the bad guys. As David DeGraw put it, “According to the C.I.A.’s own documents, the people on the ‘kill list,’ who were targeted for ‘death-by-drone,’ accounted for only 2% of the deaths caused by the drone strikes.”

Two percent. Really, Pentagon? You got a two on the test? You get five points just for spelling your name right.

But those 70,000 bombs dropped by Bush—it was child’s play. DeGraw again: ” Obama] dropped 100,000 bombs in seven countries. He out-bombed Bush by 30,000 bombs and 2 countries.”

You have to admit that’s impressively horrific. That puts Obama in a very elite group of Nobel Peace Prize winners who have killed that many innocent civilians. The reunions are mainly just him and Henry Kissinger wearing little hand-drawn name tags and munching on deviled eggs.

However, we now know that Donald Trump’s administration puts all previous presidents to shame. The Pentagon’s numbers show that during George W. Bush’s eight years he averaged 24 bombs dropped per day, which is 8,750 per year. Over the course of Obama’s time in office, his military dropped 34 bombs per day, 12,500 per year. And in Trump’s first year in office, he averaged 121 bombs dropped per day, for an annual total of 44,096.

Trump’s military dropped 44,000 bombs in his first year in office.

He has basically taken the gloves off the Pentagon, taken the leash off an already rabid dog. So the end result is a military that’s behaving like Lil Wayne crossed with Conor McGregor. You look away for one minute, look back, and are like, “What the fuck did you just do? I was gone for like, a second!”

Under Trump, five bombs are dropped per hour—every hour of every day. That averages out to a bomb every 12 minutes.

And which is more outrageous—the crazy amount of death and destruction we are creating around the world, or the fact that your mainstream corporate media basically NEVER investigates it? They talk about Trump’s flaws. They say he’s a racist, bulbous-headed, self-centered idiot (which is totally accurate)—but they don’t criticize the perpetual Amityville massacre our military perpetrates by dropping a bomb every 12 minutes, most of them killing 98 percent non-targets.

When you have a Department of War with a completely unaccountable budget—as we saw with the $21 trillion—and you have a president with no interest in overseeing how much death the Department of War is responsible for, then you end up dropping so many bombs that the Pentagon has reported we are running out of bombs.

Oh, dear God. If we run out of our bombs, then how will we stop all those innocent civilians from … farming? Think of all the goats that will be allowed to go about their days.

And, as with the $21 trillion, the theme seems to be “unaccountable.”

Journalist Witney Webb wrote in February, “Shockingly, more than 80 percent of those killed have never even been identified and the C.I.A.’s own documents have shown that they are not even aware of who they are killing—avoiding the issue of reporting civilian deaths simply by naming all those in the strike zone as enemy combatants.”

That’s right. We kill only enemy combatants. How do we know they’re enemy combatants? Because they were in our strike zone. How did we know it was a strike zone? Because there were enemy combatants there. How did we find out they were enemy combatants? Because they were in the strike zone. … Want me to keep going, or do you get the point? I have all day.

This is not about Trump, even though he’s a maniac. It’s not about Obama, even though he’s a war criminal. It’s not about Bush, even though he has the intelligence of boiled cabbage. (I haven’t told a Bush joke in about eight years. Felt kind of good. Maybe I’ll get back into that.)

This is about a runaway military-industrial complex that our ruling elite are more than happy to let loose. Almost no one in Congress or the presidency tries to restrain our 121 bombs a day. Almost no one in a mainstream outlet tries to get people to care about this.

Recently, the hashtag #21Trillion for the unaccounted Pentagon money has gained some traction. Let’s get another one started: #121BombsADay.

One every 12 minutes.

Do you know where they’re hitting? Who they’re murdering? Why? One hundred and twenty-one bombs a day rip apart the lives of families a world away—in your name and my name and the name of the kid doling out the wrong size popcorn at the movie theater.

We are a rogue nation with a rogue military and a completely unaccountable ruling elite. The government and military you and I support by being a part of this society are murdering people every 12 minutes, and in response, there’s nothing but a ghostly silence. It is beneath us as a people and a species to give this topic nothing but silence. It is a crime against humanity.

Trusting Trump Shows a ‘Divorce from Reality’ The original Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg on government lies, public trust and when to break an oath

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Peace, Politics, War on June 20, 2018 at 10:10 pm

Before Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, there was Daniel Ellsberg. In 1971, Ellsberg leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers, secret Defense Department documents showing that U.S. presidents had been lying to the public about the war in Vietnam. The revelations helped speed the end of the war, but they also changed the image of leakers. For the first time, releasing secret government documents could be viewed — by some Americans, at least — as an act of patriotism.

Ellsberg didn’t take his act lightly. For years, he had worked at the heart of the national security complex and was privy to some of the country’s most closely held secrets, including the operational plans for nuclear war, which he helped draft. When he decided to leak the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg wasn’t just risking life in prison. He was breaking promises he had made — and kept — his entire professional life.

“I shouldn’t have been asked to keep secrets when they were about concealing crimes or reckless and murderous policies.”

Ellsberg avoided jail time and has spent the years since as a political activist, warning Americans not to blindly trust their leaders. Now 87, he’s sounding the alarm over the threat of nuclear war. In December 2017, Ellsberg published a memoir, The Doomsday Machine, about his time as a nuclear war planner in the 1960s. In it, Ellsberg once again exposes the lies the U.S. government has told its citizens — this time, about the possible end of the world.

Ellsberg spoke to me by phone about his fear of nuclear annihilation, the moral calculus that led him to leak the Pentagon Papers, and how challenging it will be to rebuild the public trust that President Donald Trump has helped shatter. (This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Medium: Knowing what it could cost you, how did you ultimately decide to leak the Pentagon Papers?

Daniel Ellsberg: When I began copying them in October 1969, it was with the belief that the public was being misled by the administration as to its aims in Vietnam. I thought that if the public understood that they’d been misled in the same way by four previous presidents — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson — that they would at least look more seriously on the possibility that I believed they were being misled in that way by a fifth president, Nixon.

The willingness to go to those lengths to enlighten the public in terms of my readiness to go to prison for life, as I expected to, came from the immediate example of young Americans who were already going to prison — not for life, but for years — in order to make the strongest message they could that the war was wrong.

How did you come to terms with releasing government secrets?

I had taken an oath of office in the government, and earlier in the Marine Corps, but that was not to keep secrets or to obey the president. That was a different oath: “To protect, support, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

That was a real, “so help me God,” right-hand-raised oath, which I had been violating along with the president and all of my colleagues for years. I just didn’t see it right away in those terms.

At the time, there was no question that I was breaking promises I’d made as a condition of employment. But I came to realize I had been mistaken to give that unconditional promise. I shouldn’t have been asked to keep secrets when they were about concealing crimes or reckless and murderous policies.

Countless people in government had access to the same information you did, who might have even felt the same sense of outrage you did, but they did nothing. What made you different?

It seemed to me, as it does to other whistleblowers at the time, that the information obviously needed to be out. You’re asking why so few do it, and that’s been puzzling me for 50 years now. One factor, I think, is that it was critical for me to meet people that I could identify with, like [Vietnam War activist] Randy Kehler, who otherwise had a similar background and who were doing this as draft resisters. If I hadn’t met them, the idea of doing this, I think, would not have come into my mind at all.

It comes down to whether you’re willing to take this risk, and it turns out that, empirically, almost no one is willing to do that. That seems to be the way humans are. That’s why the human species and all other large species are in very great danger.

“What I came to see was that several presidents had systematically broken trust with the public and with their promise to obey the Constitution.”

What would you tell someone who finds themselves in that kind of position?

If we’re talking about information that is being wrongfully withheld from the public by the government, with very high stakes involved, then I would say to them, “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until bombs are falling, and thousands more people have died, or the Constitution has been irreparably violated, before you consider putting the information out.”

I’m not exactly saying, “Do it.” I’m saying consider being willing to pay any cost to your life if we’re talking about stakes in which many, many other lives are involved or a major rule of law is involved.

Why did you wait?

I thought of leaking as betraying, breaking a promise, being wrong, embarrassing the president in ways that I had no intention of doing. I actually trusted the president to do the best thing under the circumstances, what I would have thought was wise or appropriate. Any divergence between us, I trusted, was just a matter of human error on his part or mine.

What I came to see was that several presidents had systematically broken trust with the public and with their promise to obey the Constitution. They did not deserve this kind of benefit of the doubt that I was actually giving them.

In your book ‘The Doomsday Machine’, you write about the horror you felt when presented with U.S. nuclear war plans that scoped out the deaths of 600 million people worldwide. What is it like to be in that machine? Why didn’t more people react?

What’s your guess on that?

Maybe they convinced themselves it was necessary to check the Soviet Union. Maybe they just put it out of their minds. Maybe they treated it as an intellectual exercise rather than something that could actually happen in the real world.

You’re looking at the simple effects on your personal life and your identity as a high-level official. Your career prospects, your children’s education, your ability to get further jobs. It all depend on your willingness to keep company secrets. It’s also possible to [talk yourself out of] the beneficial effect of revealing this stuff. Will the public really take action? Will anything come of it? Will Congress or the president actually respond? It’s certainly realistic to be skeptical about that.

If, for example, someone were to leak a report about what it would be like to have a nuclear war with North Korea, is there a risk that the American public simply wouldn’t believe it?

Oh yeah, definitely. President Trump is willing to deny any fact, no matter how well based on evidence and scientific explanation. And he has a base of people who think there are no facts except what the president says. That’s a misplaced trust that is very dangerous, not just to democracy, but to our continued existence as a civilization and even as a species.

How much should we be trusting a president in general?

Well, not as much as I did. I gave too much trust to the president. Trump, of course, is in a class by himself on this one. Trusting Trump, which about a third of the population does, shows a divorce from reality. And our democracy is not benefited by having that kind of misplaced trust.

“Trump is willing to deny any act, no matter how well based on evidence and scientific explanation.”

In the future, do you think another president could restore that trust? Or has it been fundamentally broken?

That has to happen. It won’t be a quick matter. But it could be done by people with a will to change it, who act in accordance with what they’re promising. It would take a period of time. It would be by earning it, by acting more truthfully—and I don’t mean just the executive branch of the government. I mean Congress and the courts and the media.

You’ve written about your great fear that we won’t escape nuclear war. How do you continue to do your work, your activism, believing that there’s such a great chance that our species won’t make it?

How do I live with that? It’s a reality as much as my own mortality is. I don’t say that I’ve done everything, by any means, that I have used my time as effectively as I could have. But I’m trying to do my best, and I’ll continue to do that, because I think it’s worth it. Even with all of its ills of past and current times, inequality, famine, cruelty, tyranny—I still think civilization and democracy and the rule of law are worth struggling to preserve.

Is it worth risking prison or permanent exile for a small chance of improving our chances of survival—and for the survival of democracy? I would say yes, it is.

written by

Bryan Walsh

Journalist, author, dad. Former TIME magazine editor and foreign correspondent. Writing END TIMES, a book about existential risk and the end of the world.

Banal Nationalism

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Peace, Politics, War on June 20, 2018 at 9:38 am

Lisa Wade, PhD on July 4, 2014
Flashback Friday.

In his book by the same name, Michael Billig coined the term “banal nationalism” to draw attention to the ways in which nationalism was not only a quality of gun-toting, flag-waving “extremists,” but was quietly and rather invisibly reproduced by all of us in our daily lives.

That we live in a world of nations was not inevitable; that the United States, or Sweden or India, exist was not inevitable. I was born in Southern California. If I had been born at another time in history I would have been Mexican or Spanish or something else altogether. The nation is a social construction.

The nation, then, must be reproduced. We must be reminded, constantly, that we are part of this thing called a “nation.” Even more, that we belong to it and it belongs to us. Banal nationalism is how the idea of the nation and our membership in it is reproduced daily. It occurs not only with celebrations, parades, or patriotic war, but in “mundane,” “routine,” and “unnoticed” ways.

The American flag, for example, casually hanging around in yards and in front of buildings everywhere; references to the nation on our money; the way that the news is usually split into us and everyone else (e.g., US News and World Report); the naming of clubs and franchises, such as the National Football League, as specific to our country; and the performance of the pledge of allegiance in schools and sports arenas:

So, what? What could possibly be the problem?

Sociologists have critiqued nationalism for being the source of an irrational commitment and loyalty to one’s nation, a commitment that makes one willing to both die and kill. Billig argues that, while it appears harmless on the surface, “banal nationalism can be mobilized and turned into frenzied nationalism.” The profound sense of national pride required for war, for example, depends on this sense of nationhood internalized over a lifetime. So banal nationalism isn’t “nationalism-lite,” it’s the very foundation upon which more dangerous nationalisms are built.

 

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College.

After decades of secrets, Rocky Flats still gives me pause

In Democracy, Environment, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Politics, Public Health, Rocky Flats on June 17, 2018 at 1:19 am

Denver Post, June 16, 2018

I most likely owe my very existence to the atomic bomb.

My father was in what was supposed to be the first wave of soldiers to occupy Japan in World War II. Based on the battles of Iwo Jima, Guam, and Okinawa, they had been told by their commanding officers that there was little chance they would survive. It had been estimated that the U.S. would lose at least a million soldiers in the occupation. My father figured he would be one of them.

My father strongly believed that more lives were saved than were lost by our use of nuclear weapons. Over the years he convinced me that was true.

I am, however, opposed to nuclear contamination.

Rocky Flats has become infamous for nuclear contamination. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and anyone else who has studied Rocky Flats admits that there was massive nuclear and hazardous waste contamination at the site. They also admit that the contamination was both inside and outside the boundaries of the plant.

The contamination, mostly from plutonium fires and corroding drums full of nuclear hazardous waste, was kept secret from the public by the DOE and its contractors until 1969. The highly visible billowing black smoke from a fire that year made it obvious to outside observers that nuclear contamination was escaping from the site. Independent tests were performed to assess the extent of contamination. When the civilian monitoring teams challenged government officials with the observed measurements, they were told that actually, most of the offsite contamination had come from a more catastrophic fire in 1957. It was the first time anyone in the public had been made aware of that disaster.

Due to Cold War fears and the growing number of military targets identified behind the Iron Curtain, DOE pushed its contractors hard to produce more and more plutonium triggers faster and faster. Safety for workers and the community was secondary, or an afterthought. The contractors were given blanket immunity by the federal government for most lawsuits, should problems occur. This attitude led to numerous accidents and unnecessary exposures for workers, as well as growing piles of waste that had to be stored onsite. Plutonium was handled in such a haphazard fashion that more than a ton of it was eventually lost, or unaccounted for. This culture led to Rocky Flats being ranked by the DOE as the most dangerous nuclear site in the United States. Two of its buildings made the list of the ten most contaminated buildings in America. Building 771 at Rocky Flats was number one.

In 1989, based on information from a plant whistle-blower alleging environmental crimes, the FBI and EPA raided Rocky Flats. This eventually led to the closure of the site and a special grand jury which, after more than 3 years of testimony, sought to criminally indict three government officials and five employees of the plant contractor. The Department of Justice refused to indict, however, and instead negotiated a plea bargain with the contractor, who was required to pay an $18.5 million fine. This was less than they collected in bonuses from the DOE that year, despite more than 400 environmental violations being identified. The evidence and findings of the grand jury were sealed by court order.

When Rocky Flats closed, the DOE estimated that it would take over $35 billion and 70 years to adequately clean the site. Congress appropriated them only $7 billion, and clean-up began.

What is contested is how much contamination remains on- and offsite after the clean-up, and what risk, if any, may persist. The government has reams of data and multiple exhibits supporting their claim that the risk is low. Concerned community groups and anti-nuclear activists also have data supporting their claim that the risk is not negligible.

I do not know where the truth lies. There is credible science and support on both sides. What I do know is that two of the men who have seen the most evidence concerning the level of contamination at Rocky Flats, the lead agent for the FBI raid and the foreman of the grand jury, continue to advocate for the prohibition of public access to the site. This gives me great pause.

When I was a kid, I guess I watched too many westerns.

They led me to believe that it was a noble thing to stand up to powerful forces when you thought they may be wrong, or when you felt you needed more information before you could support them. They lied to me. In real life, what I have found is that when I have the temerity to question the government’s claims, or ask for additional, independent information to help me decide where the truth may lie, I am labeled a “general of the scare brigade”, “reckless” and “irresponsible”.

I just wish I had the level of certainty that they have who feel so confident in publicly shaming my search for truth.

Mark B. Johnson, MD, MPH, is executive director of Jefferson County Public Health.

The 60-Year Downfall of Nuclear Power in the U.S. Has Left a Huge Mess. The demand for atomic energy is in decline. But before the country can abandon its plants, there’s six decades of waste to deal with.

In Cost, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Nuclear powere, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on May 30, 2018 at 8:59 am

Atlantic, May 28, 2018

It was just another day in the life of the defunct Hanford nuclear site, a remote part of Washington State that made most of the plutonium in America’s Cold War arsenal. On the morning of May 9, 2017, alarms sounded. Around 2,000 site workers were told to take cover indoors, and aircraft were banned from flying over the site for several hours. The roof of a tunnel had collapsed, exposing railcars that had been loaded with radioactive waste from plutonium production and then shunted underground and sealed in decades before.This post is adapted from Pearce’s new book.
There was other stuff down there too. Nobody quite knew what. Record keeping was poor, but the contents of the tunnels certainly included carcasses from animal radiation experiments, including a reported 18 alligators. The emergency lasted only a few hours. The integrity of the waste was restored. But it was a chilling reminder of the site’s perilous radioactive legacy.

Sprawling across 600 square miles of sagebrush semidesert, Hanford is a $100 billion cleanup burden, full of accidents waiting to happen. It is the biggest headache, but very far from being the only one, emerging in what increasingly look like the final years of America’s nuclear age.

It is 60 years since America’s first commercial nuclear power station was opened by President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Shippingport, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 26, 1958. But the hopes of a nuclear future with power “too cheap to meter” are now all but over. All that is left is the trillion-dollar cleanup.

Public fear and suspicion about all things nuclear grew sharply after March 1979, when the cooling system at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station failed and triggered a meltdown. In the end, actual releases of radiation were minimal, but the incident left behind a reputational mess in addition to the radiological one. On the day of the accident, the United States had 140 operating nuclear reactors, with 92 under construction and 28 more awaiting official approval. In the next five years, more than 50 orders for new nuclear reactors in America were canceled. New contracts entirely dried up.

Hanford has not produced plutonium for three decades. Nobody is making new material for bombs anymore. President Trump’s plans for more weapons can be met by recycling existing plutonium stocks. And even the civil nuclear industry, which still generates a fifth of America’s electricity, is in what looks like terminal decline. With cheap natural gas and renewable solar and wind energy increasingly available, the numbers no longer add up. Nuclear power plants across the nation are being closed with years of licensed operation unused.

No new nuclear power stations have come on line in the past two decades. The only new build underway, two additional reactors at Georgia Power’s Alvin W. Vogtle plant near Waynesboro, is five years behind schedule and has seen its costs double. Its planned completion in 2022 remains uncertain.

America’s 99 remaining operational nuclear power reactors, which still deliver power to the grid, are too important to be closed overnight. But nearly half are over 40 years old. The only question is how long the regulators and accountants will allow them to keep going.

Oyster Creek in New Jersey disconnects from the grid in October with 11 years left on its license. Indian Point in New York State is to shut by 2021 due to falling revenues and rising costs. In California, Diablo Canyon is being closed by state regulators in 2025. The reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania that survived the 1979 accident will finally shut in 2019.

Shutdown is only the beginning of the end. Final closure and clearance of the sites can take decades, and the waste crisis created by decommissioning cannot be dodged. Lethal radioactive material is accumulating at dozens of power plants, military facilities, and interim stores across the country.

Some, like the train cars buried at Hanford, is evidently in a precarious situation. Much more needs urgent attention. Cleaning up and safely disposing of the residues of the nuclear adventure—much of it waste with a half-life measured in tens of thousands of years—is turning into a trillion-dollar nightmare for the nation.

Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge is an oasis of prairie biodiversity covering 5,000 acres, home to prairie dogs, elk, monarch butterflies, and rare xeric grasses. It also serves as a buffer zone around the site of the largest completed nuclear cleanup to date in the United States. And David Lucas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to open it for public access in summer 2018. He’s reckoning on 150,000 visitors a year.

During the Cold War, Rocky Flats was secretly machining plutonium manufactured at Hanford into some 70,000 spheres that formed the explosive heart of each weapon in Uncle Sam’s nuclear arsenal. Plutonium pollution was routine. The plant had nowhere to get rid of the day-to-day plutonium waste, which was often dumped in hastily dug landfills or sprayed onto grassland around the plant. At an outdoor compound known as pad 903, where more than 5,000 drums of waste liquids contaminated with plutonium are stored, there’s been substantial leakage. An internal memo reported that rabbits living on the site were heavily contaminated, especially in their hind feet.

A whistle-blower’s allegations about illegal late-night incineration of plutonium waste at the plant led to an FBI raid in 1989. After that—and with demand for plutonium spheres declining following the end of the Cold War—the government closed the site. A federal grand jury sat for three years to hear testimony from the FBI raid. But two days after the jury approved indictments, the Justice Department struck a deal with Rockwell Automation, the company that managed the plant. The company pleaded guilty to some minor charges, but the FBI evidence and grand jury conclusions were sealed forever.

After the cover-up came the cleanup. The core plutonium-handling areas were declared a Superfund site, qualifying for a federal decontamination, which was completed in 2005. The federal government called it “the largest and most successful environmental cleanup in history.” But in reality it was a cut-price job. The original project was estimated at $37 billion, but Congress would sanction only $7 billion. So processing buildings were demolished, but basements and 25 miles of underground tunnels and pipelines were left behind, according to LeRoy Moore, a veteran activist who sat on a public committee in the 1980s that considered the cleanup plans.

Today, the land that housed the industrial complex remains behind a sturdy fence under the control of the Department of Energy (DOE). But the large grassland buffer zone that once protected the complex from prying eyes has been released into the care of the Fish and Wildlife Service for public access.

There are two concerns. First that, as I saw on a tour with Lucas, the fenced-off core area hardly looks self-contained. Earth slips have left ugly gashes up to 300 feet wide across a former landfill site that overlooks a creek running through the wildlife refuge. The DOE’s Scott Surovchak concedes that “slumping is very common” after heavy rain. Only constant repairs, it seems, will prevent the landfills and buried contaminated buildings and pipework from being exposed.

The second concern is the safety of the buffer zone itself. Harvey Nichols, a biologist from the University of Colorado, has found that when the plant was operating snow falling nearby was often “hot.” Falling snowflakes captured tiny plutonium particles that evaded the stack filter. Just two days of snowfall could deposit about 14 million particles on every acre of the site. “There must be tens of billions of particles in the soil today,” he told me.

The Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed such concerns. In 2006 it found plutonium levels in soil samples in the buffer zone were within acceptable limits and concluded that the lands comprising the refuge are “suitable for unlimited use and unrestricted exposure.” But Moore, the activist, is unimpressed. “Prairie dogs and other critters will burrow down for several feet and bring plutonium to the surface,” he says. “Children will be exposed to plutonium. And people will start taking plutonium out into their communities on boots and cycle wheels. Why would we allow that?”

Lucas is unmoved. “We need to get people out here on the refuge. Then the fears will evaporate,” he told me. But that is just what worries his opponents. Forgetting about the plutonium is the worst thing that could happen, they say.

About 30 miles northeast of Rocky Flats, out on the prairie near the small town of Platteville, is the Fort St. Vrain spent-fuel store. It resembles nothing so much as an outsize grain store, but since the 1990s it has been holding 1,400 spent fuel rods, laced with plutonium and encased in blocks of graphite. The spent fuel was left behind when the neighboring nuclear power plant shut. The plan had been to send it to another temporary store at the Idaho National Laboratory, but the governor of Idaho banned the shipment. The Fort St. Vrain facility is designed to withstand earthquakes, tornado winds of up to 360 miles per hour, and flooding six feet deep. Also time. It will be several decades at least before the federal government finds the fuel a final resting place.

The country is littered with such caches of spent fuel stuck in limbo. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel, the most dangerous of all nuclear wastes, is stored at 80 sites in 35 states. The sites include stores at past and present power plants such as Maine Yankee, and stand-alone federal sites such as Fort St. Vrain. As the GAO puts it: “After spending decades and billions of dollars … the future prospects for permanent disposal remain unclear.” Nobody wants to give the stuff a forever home.

Nuclear waste is conventionally categorized as high-, intermediate-, or low-level. Low-level waste includes everything from discarded protective clothing to plant equipment and lab waste. It can usually be treated like any other hazardous waste, which in practice usually means burial in drums in landfills or concrete-lined trenches.

Intermediate waste contains radioactive materials with isotopes that decay with half-lives long enough to require long-term incarceration. It includes many reactor components, as well as chemical sludges and liquids from processing radioactive materials, which can often be solidified in concrete blocks. Once solid, intermediate waste can be buried safely in shallow graves, though anything containing plutonium will have to be disposed of deep underground because of the very long half-life.

Much of America’s intermediate-level waste will end up at the country’s largest deep-burial site for such radioactive material. The U.S. military’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in salt beds near Carlsbad, New Mexico, could eventually take 6.2 million cubic feet of waste. But it has had problems that have slowed progress and raised questions about its viability.

A chemical explosion in 2014 sprayed the tunnels dug into the salt beds with a white, radioactive foam. When a ventilation filter failed, some of the plutonium reached the surface, where at least 17 surface workers were contaminated. The military shut the tunnels for three years to clean up. While WIPP is today back in business, full operations cannot resume until a new ventilation system is in place, probably in 2021. The eventual cost of the accident, including keeping the dump open longer to catch up with the waste backlog, has been put at $2 billion.

High-level waste is the nastiest stuff. It includes all spent fuel and a range of highly radioactive waste liquids produced when spent fuel is reprocessed, a chemical treatment that extracts the plutonium. Most of America’s high-level waste liquids—and around 30 percent of the world’s total—are in tanks at Hanford.

High-level waste is either very radioactive and will stay so for a long time, or it generates heat and so requires keeping cool. Usually both. It accounts for more than 95 percent of all the radioactivity in America’s nuclear waste, and needs to be kept out of harm’s way for thousands of years.

There is general agreement that the only way to keep high-level waste safe is by turning the liquids into solids and then burying it all deep underground, somewhere where neither water nor seismic activity is likely to bring the radioactivity to the surface, and where nobody is likely to stumble on it unexpectedly. There is disagreement, however, about whether this buried waste should be kept retrievable in case future technologies could make it safer sooner, or whether accessibility simply places a burden of guardianship on future generations.

Before it can be buried, most high-level waste needs to be stored for up to a century while it cools. Unfortunately, this has encouraged countries to put off making plans. None of the world’s high-level waste currently has any permanent resting place. The planet is instead peppered with interim stores. America is no better. Its 90,000 metric tons of high-level waste—set to rise to as much as 140,000 tonnes by the time the last power plant closes—is mostly sitting in ponds at dozens of power stations or lockups like Fort St. Vrain.

How did the United States reach this impasse? Back in 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act established that it was the government’s job to deal with this ultimate back-end problem. The act obliged Washington to begin removing used fuel from stores and other facilities by 1998 for eventual disposal at a federal facility. In 1987, Yucca Mountain, near the former Nevada bomb-testing grounds, was chosen to be the sole such facility.

In the 1990s, a five-mile tunnel was dug into the remote mountain. Then work stopped, in part because of vehement state opposition and in part because of concerns raised by geologists that a future volcanic eruption could propel buried waste back to the surface. One of President Obama’s first acts on taking office in 2009 was to formally abandon the $100 billion project. Things headed for the courts, which began awarding damages to power companies unable to make use of the nonexistent federal facility. The payouts amount to around half a billion dollars a year, and by 2022 will likely reach $29 billion.

Now President Trump wants to revive Yucca. His 2019 budget request included $120 million for the task. But the state opposition remains as strong as ever, and only $50 million was included in the final budget for Yucca-related items. Maybe Yucca Mountain will make a comeback. If not, then with no alternatives on the horizon, utilities will carry on being paid to keep spent fuel in pools next to abandoned nuclear power plants, and the interim stores in places such as Fort St. Vrain could be in business not just for decades but for centuries. The nuclear-waste time bomb will keep ticking.

The true heartland of America’s nuclear enterprise has always been Hanford. And it is the biggest and most toxic cleanup legacy too. Straddling the Columbia River, the Hanford nuclear reservation was America’s primary bomb-making factory. It was where they made the plutonium. At peak production, during the 1960s, its nine reactors irradiated 7,000 metric tons of uranium fuel annually. The intense radiation inside the reactors produced plutonium that was then extracted at five reprocessing plants. Hanford produced a total of 67 metric tons of the metal for the American arsenal, before business halted after the Cold War ended.

Plutonium production was a huge task. It required much of the electricity generated at the giant Grand Coulee Dam upstream on the Columbia, the largest hydroelectric power producer in the United States. And the mess left behind is equally mind-boggling. Since production ceased, Hanford has been conducting the country’s largest-ever environmental cleanup program. The current expenditure is $2.3 billion a year. By the time it is done the bill will be more than $100 billion.

The site holds an estimated 25 million cubic feet of solid, radioactive waste. Much of it is buried in over 40 miles of trenches and tunnels, up to 24 feet deep, including the stretch that caved in last year. Elsewhere, there are two corroding cooling ponds, each the size of an Olympic swimming pool, containing some 2,000 tons of spent fuel that never got reprocessed.

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But the headline Hanford problem is the 56 million gallons of acidic and highly radioactive liquids and sludges, stored in 177 giant tanks, each up to 75 feet in diameter. They are the solvent leftovers from reprocessing, and contain around twice the total radioactivity released from the world’s worst nuclear accident to date, the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine.

The tanks have been leaking for over half a century. Around a million gallons are slowly spreading toward the Columbia River, in a plume of contaminated soil covering 80 square miles. Protecting the river and its rich salmon habitat from the radioactive pollution is the number-one cleanup priority for the site’s custodians at the Department of Energy. To head off the flows, engineers are constantly pumping out radioactive water.

A better idea is to stop the leaks at the source by emptying the tanks and solidifying the liquids. The current aim is to heat them with glass-forming materials to create solid blocks that could one day be buried deep underground—maybe at Yucca Mountain. Work on a plant to do this began in 2002. It is currently 25 years behind schedule. Operations are not set to begin until 2036 and, once underway, would take 40 years.

At $17 billion and counting, the project is way over budget. Former plant engineers who have turned whistle-blowers believe it won’t be fit for the job and should be abandoned. They warn of a serious risk that particles of plutonium may settle out in the plant processing tanks, creating the potential for an accidental explosion with a big release of radiation.

The task at Hanford grows ever more daunting. After almost three decades, little of the waste and few of the tanks or processing plants have been cleaned up. Far away in Washington, D.C., some question the continuing money sink. It seems to some like a 21st-century pork barrel. Perhaps, critics say, it would be better to put up a fence and walk away. President Trump, while so far publicly supporting the Hanford cleanup, may privately agree. He has slashed its annual budget by $230 million, or about 10 percent.

Local environmentalists are scandalized. “We have got to clean up the site,” says Dan Serres, the conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a local NGO. The tanks should be emptied and the trenches dug up. “In a hundred years, I’d hope the Native Americans have their treaty rights to this land restored,” agrees Chuck Johnson, of Physicians for Social Responsibility. But Tom Carpenter, the executive director of Hanford Challenge, who sits on an advisory board at the Hanford Concerns Council, told me: “You are never going to dig all the waste there up.” The tanks will have to be dealt with, but “most of Hanford’s waste volume-wise is going to stay put. Hanford is going to be a national sacrifice zone for hundreds of years.”

This piece is adapted from Pearce’s new book, Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age.

FRED PEARCE is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist, and Yale Environment 360.

Ban Treaty on Track to Enter into Force

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on May 2, 2018 at 9:56 am

By Lydia Wood on Apr 30, 2018

Last week, I had the privilege of attending, on behalf of NuclearBan.US, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) campaigners’ meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting brought together over 130 ICAN campaigners from around the world to discuss campaign progress and strategy for making the United Nations Nuclear Ban Treaty successful.

Since 122 nations adopted the treaty at the United Nations on July 7, 2017, 58 countries have already signed and 7 countries have ratified the treaty. Once 50 countries have ratified the treaty it will enter into legal force, becoming binding under international law. Many countries across the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia are working through their governmental process of officially ratifying the treaty. This exciting progress means we are on track to have the treaty enter into force sometime over the next two years!

I met energized and creative campaigners from Kenya, Costa Rica, Nepal, The United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, and The United States among many other countries who are bridging generational, national, religious, gender, and ethnic differences to build a thriving coalition against nuclear weapons. They talked about their efforts to lobby governments, politicians, faith organizations, and people and institutions at the grassroots level to take a stand against nuclear weapons.

The biggest challenge moving forward is getting the nine nuclear weapons countries and their NATO allies to support the treaty and eliminate their weapons. ICAN’s approach is to focus on consistent and clear messaging highlighting the humanitarian and existential risk that nuclear weapons pose to humanity. It’s a risk that we all share regardless of our national, political, or ethnic affiliations.

Here in the United States, it is a challenge to get people to think more internationally, but that is specifically what is needed for the Nuclear Ban Treaty to be successful. Grassroots mobilizing will be vital for turning the tides from nuclear posturing towards nuclear disarmament and nuclear abolition. By working in our communities to educate others on nuclear risk, and by personally and collectively divesting from, and boycotting, the 26 companies making nuclear weapons we can help chip away at their legitimacy.

Cities, institutions, businesses, schools, faith organizations, and individuals across the US and abroad have already started committing themselves to divesting and boycotting from nuclear weapons, and many more are in the process of doing so. The treaty compliance campaign that is the centerpiece of NuclearBan.US is one way individuals and communities large and small can take on the nuclear threat and contribute to the success of the Nuclear Ban Treaty. It’s also offers a scalable strategy that other nuclear weapon and NATO countries can adopt to mobilize their citizenry. Furthermore, by mobilizing public support for the treaty we also signal to the international community that there is grassroots support for the Nuclear Ban in the US, further encouraging other countries to ratify the treaty.

After attending the ICAN campaigners’ meeting I am more convinced than ever that this movement will be successful. As we saw with the historic agreement that made vital progress towards ending the Korean War and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, diplomacy is good foreign policy. We need not wait for morality and rationality to creep into our political systems. As ICAN’s success to date reminds us, change starts within ourselves and our communities. It is possible to alter the course of history.