Unearthed: News of the Week the Mainstream Media Forgot to Report

Ashcroft claims waterboarding isn't torture, Green energy sector jobs surge, Ford offers more fuel efficient vehicles in the U.S., and the White House tries to define contraception as abortion.
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Ashcroft Claims Waterboarding Isn't Torture

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee last week that waterboarding is not torture. Ashcroft also claims waterboarding is more effective than other interrogation techniques and has served a "very valuable" purpose.

"I believe a report of waterboarding would be serious, but I do not believe it would define torture," Ashcroft testified. He added, "the Department of Justice has on a consistent basis over the last half-dozen years or so, over and over again in its evaluations, come to the conclusion that under the law in existence during my time as attorney general, waterboarding did not constitute torture."

Republican Representative Howard Coble of North Carolina asked Ashcroft, "Waterboarding, as we all know, is a controversial issue. Do you think it served a beneficial purpose?"

"The reports that I have heard, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, indicate that they were very valuable," Ashcroft replied, adding that CIA Director George Tenet indicated the "value of the information received from the use of enhanced interrogation techniques -- I don't know whether he was saying waterboarding or not, but assume that he was for a moment -- the value of that information exceeded the value of information that was received from all other sources."

More Details Emerge On How White House Blocked CO2 Cuts

Jason Burnett, a former Bush EPA appointee, told the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming last week that the White House was persuaded by "individuals working for particular oil companies, Exxon Mobil," and oil industry trade associations to delay and ultimately block EPA's efforts to regulate CO2 during the remainder of Bush's term in office.

Burnett said that White House officials initially supported EPA's efforts to create a framework to regulate CO2 emissions, but reversed course after a carefully choreographed lobbying campaign by representatives from Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Petrochemicals and Refiners Association, who argued that Bush should not undermine his legacy by regulating greenhouse gases. Burnett, the former EPA deputy associate administrator, claims that the coal and oil industries successfully persuaded the White House to block the EPA's determination that CO2 and other greenhouse gases pose a significant threat to public health and the climate and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Burnett explained to the committee how the electric power industry, particularly the Edison Electric Institute, "thought their members would be better served by getting out in front and actively engaging" regulators trying to shape CO2 standards, "rather than trying to fight what they judge to be inevitable."

Burnett said he and other EPA staff were ordered by administration officials to downplay the risk of global warming: "We were told . . . that the [document] should not establish a path forward or a framework for regulation, but should emphasize the complexity of the challenge."

EPA announced last week that the agency has no intention of regulating global warming emissions until after President Bush's term ends. Days later, the agency issued detailed warnings confirming that global warming poses "substantial" threats to the United States. Heat waves, hurricanes and infectious diseases will increase and "it is very likely" that more people will die during extremely hot periods in future years, with the greatest impacts on the elderly, the poor and those in inner cities, according to the new EPA report.

Closing Coal Plants Benefits Children's Brain Development

A new study by researchers at Columbia University's Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) concludes that shutting down coal-fired power plants has a direct, positive impact on infant brain development.

The study, published in the July 14th edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, tracked the development of two groups of children in China - one in utero while a coal-fired power plant was operating in the city of Tongliang and one in utero after the Chinese government had closed the same plant. The group exposed to coal plant emissions in the womb had significantly lower average developmental scores and reduced motor development at age two than children in the control group with no exposure to the coal plant emissions.

"This study provides direct evidence that governmental action to eliminate polluting coal-burning sources benefits children's neurodevelopment," said Dr. Frederica Perera, lead author of the study and Director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health. "These findings have major implications for environmental health and energy policy as they demonstrate that reduction in dependence on coal for energy can have a measurable positive impact on children's development and health -- in China and elsewhere," said Perara.

Earlier studies conducted by the CCEH on coal's health impacts found that newborns with high levels of prenatal exposure to air pollution from coal-fired power plants have smaller head circumference at birth, lower growth rate in childhood, and significantly worse performance on developmental tests at two years of age. Additionally, newborns in utero during operation of the coal burning power plant had higher levels of DNA damage due to prenatal exposure to air pollutants than newborns in either New York City or Krakow, Poland.

Green Energy Sector Jobs Surge, Coal Industry Employment Continues Falling

A new report by the Worldwatch Institute confirms that a transition to renewable energy sources will lead to significant global job gains. Meanwhile, coal industry employment continues to plummet. In the United States alone, coal industry employment has fallen by half in the last 20 years, despite a one-third increase in production.

An estimated 2.3 million people worldwide currently work either directly in renewables or indirectly in supplier industries. The solar thermal industry employs at least 624,000 people, the wind power industry 300,000, and the solar PV industry 170,000. More than 1 million people work in the biomass and biofuels sector, while small-scale hydropower employs 39,000 individuals and geothermal employs 25,000.

These figures are expected to swell substantially as private investment and government support for alternative energy sources grow.

Ford Finally Shifts Focus to Offer More Fuel Efficient Vehicles In the U.S.

Ford Motor Company's two-decade obsession with selling Americans millions of gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks is finally waning. The company announced plans to drastically shift its focus to building more fuel-efficient cars. Ford plans to convert three of its North American assembly plants from producing trucks to cars, and to realign its factories to manufacture more fuel-efficient engines. Ford will also begin domestic production and sales of six of the car models it currently sells only in Europe.

Many Americans are reacting to high gas prices by purchasing smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, and since Detroit had little to offer to meet those priorities, Japanese automakers have capitalized on surging consumer demand for their more fuel-friendly cars and hybrids.

Ford posted the worst quarterly performance in its history this week, losing $8.67 billion in the second quarter. The company lost $15.3 billion in 2006 and 2007 combined. Ford slashed more than 40,000 jobs in the past three years, and sold off three of its European luxury brands to raise money to cover the losses from declining SUV and truck sales.

The company is faring only slightly better than General Motors, which is facing the possibility of bankruptcy thanks to Detroit's collective gamble that Americans would keep buying big trucks and that gas would remain cheap. Honda announced record profits for the quarter, and Toyota beat General Motors in worldwide sales in the first half of the year, setting a pace to strip GM of its long-standing title as worldwide auto sales leader.

Judge Restores Endangered Species Act Protections for Yellowstone Wolves

Yellowstone area gray wolves are once again protected by the Endangered Species Act, after a federal district court judge restored the wolf's endangered status last week. The protections were lifted by the Bush administration earlier this year as ranching and hunting interests prevailed over science. Environmental groups sued the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service to re-list the species, which faced the possibility of irreparable harm if planned hunts had proceeded this fall, when hunters in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming were set to kill 500 wolves.

The district court judge restored the protections after a review of the science, calling the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to de-list the wolves "problematic." The judge criticized FWS approval of Wyoming's plans to allow the wolf population to fall to just eight breeding pairs instead of the 15 pairs the federal government once required based on the science. The judge pointed out that federal authorities previously rejected Wyoming's plans based on the science and that the FWS move to de-list the wolf "represents an agency change of course unsupported by adequate reasoning."

Relief for the wolves may be temporary, as the judge's preliminary injunction could be reversed. Since the Bush administration delisted the wolf in late March, more than 100 wolves have been killed in the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Wolves Return to Oregon Wilderness

Oregon state officials confirmed last week that the state's first wolf pack appears to have settled into the Grants Pass area, a century after federally-funded bounty hunters eradicated the species from the west. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf coordinator Russ Morgan identified at least two adults and two pups last week when they answered his early-morning howls in the Umatilla National Forest. The pack likely descended from reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone, and either swam or found a bridge across the Snake River to reach the Oregon wilderness.

Thousands of gray wolves roamed the Rocky Mountains before being slaughtered and eliminated from 95 percent of the lower 48 states by the 1930s. The reintroduction of wolves by the federal government 12 years ago has measurably improved the natural balance in the Northern Rockies and benefited bird, antelope and elk populations, according to NRDC. Wolf tourism contributes at least $35 million to the local Yellowstone area economy each year.

Texas Approves a $4.93 Billion Wind Power Transmission Upgrade

Texas regulators approved a $4.93 billion wind-power transmission project last week, a move that will help ease a transmission bottleneck and deliver far more wind energy to Texas customers. The infrastructure expansion will enable the transport of 18,500 megawatts of electricity from remote west Texas wind farms to the state's major population centers, providing enough power for 3.7 million homes on a hot day with peak demand.

Currently, some Texas wind turbines are shut off while the wind is blowing because existing transmission capacity can't handle the load, a problem also hindering wind development in other states. The transmission infrastructure expansion is expected to lower electricity costs, ease pollution and create jobs, while also providing relief for Texans whose electric bills have soared along with rising natural gas prices.

White House Tries to Define Contraception As Abortion

Catering to the religious right, Bush administration health officials are attempting to redefine many forms of contraception as abortion. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposes to allow any federal grant recipient to deny a woman's access to contraception, undermining recent state laws enacted to ensure that women can get contraception when they want or need it.

The federal government previously followed the definition of pregnancy endorsed by the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; both agree that pregnancy begins at implantation. The new regulations would cut off federal funds to hospitals and states where medical providers are obligated to offer legal abortion and contraception to women.

The HHS proposal states that "the conscience of the individual or institution should be paramount in determining what constitutes abortion, within the bounds of reason. ... The Department proposes, then, to allow individuals and institutions to adhere to their own views and adopt a definition of abortion that encompasses both views of abortion."

The regulations would enable anyone working for a federal clinic, or a health center that receives federal funding -- even in the form of Medicaid - to deny access to contraception at any time.

Shoddy KBR Electrical Work Threatens Soldiers at U.S. bases in Iraq

Internal Army documents confirm that the Pentagon hid the extent of deaths and injuries from fires and shocks caused by shoddy electrical work by defense contractor KBR on U.S. military bases in Iraq. Soldiers housed on KBR-built bases face much more widespread and dangerous risk of electrocution and fire than the Pentagon and KBR have admitted publicly. While the Pentagon previously reported only 13 electrocutions in Iraq, the documents show that many more have been injured, some seriously, by shocks resulting from poor electrical work. No single document tracks the exact number of deaths and injuries, making it impossible to determine the exact toll from KRB's shoddy performance.

KBR's own internal study found a "systemic problem" with its electrical work, although the company denies any link between its work and the electrocutions. Electrical problems are the most urgent noncombat safety hazard for soldiers in Iraq, according to a 2007 Army survey. A log from one Baghdad building complex detailed soldiers complaints of receiving electrical shocks in their living quarters on an almost daily basis.

But the Pentagon did little to address the issue until a Green Beret, Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, was electrocuted in January while showering. KBR and other contractors have collected millions of dollars to repair and upgrade military facilities in Iraq, including their electrical systems. The documents reveal that KBR and other firms delegated electrical work and other duties to subcontractors who hired unskilled Iraqis who were paid only a few dollars a day.

The Bush administration's heavy reliance on private contractors in Iraq led to rampant abuse by contractors, particularly KBR which is also accused of overbilling taxpayers, providing unsafe water to soldiers and failing to protect female employees who were sexually assaulted.

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