Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Governor Palin Vs. The Spanish Inquisition

If you haven't seen the recent interviews of Governor Palin by Katie Couric, you're missing some hilarious footage. They're funnier than the Tina Fey skits on SNL, the "I can see Russia from my house" line nonwithstanding. I'm still laughing about her description of the evil head of Vladimir Putin floating into US airspace.

The September 25 one was one step up from the Monty Python skit featuring the Spanish Inquisition.

This Palin interview is like listening to a high school student try to bullshit her way through a class discussion without having done any of the assigned reading for the last year. It's irritatingly obvious that she has no idea what she's talking about, and is just regurgitating talking points. It's painful to listen to, and worse to read. Oh, she also flat-out lied about the trade missions she claimed were part of her foreign policy credentials. The last one of those was in 1997, and was conducted by then-governor Tony Knowles.

Katie Couric: Why isn't it better, Gov. Palin, to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families who are struggling with health care, housing, gas and groceries; allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?

Gov. Sarah Palin: That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the -- it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.

It just resonates--the confusion, the cadence-- with the part of the Python skit where Michael Palin, dressed up as a Cardinal, barges in through the door and blasts off the following:

NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our *four*...no... *Amongst* our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again.

I was just waiting for Palin to say ".... amongst our talking points are such diverse things as....."

I bet she'd like some nice red uniforms, too.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

GE, Pittsfield

GE, Pittsfield

I don't really know what ever got me started on it, but since I started working in the environmental field I've had this weird interest in the General Electric mess in Pittsfield, MA.

Just for a snort, here's the website for the 'brownfield redevelopment' of part of the site into an office park-- it's kind of a joke. Link Lots of marketing talk, but no real mention that the place is the worst hazardous waste mess westa Woosta.

Long story short-- GE had an enormous factory there for most of the 20th century. Among other things, they made electrical transformers. The usual dielectric (insulating) fluids used in transformers between the 1930s and the late 1970s contained polychlorinated biphenyls (aka PCBs), nearly-indestructible manmade compounds that produce a wide variety of extremely nasty health effects. GE was extremely sloppy in what they did with this stuff, which they brought in by the railroad tank car load, and a lot of it wound up in the soil and groundwater, or in the Housatonic River. The river is now polluted with PCBs for much of its length. They also used industrial waste (and contaminated soil) as fill in river oxbows when the river was straightened as a flood control project in the 1930s, and gave contaminated dirt away for free (or paid people to take it) to Pittsfield residents looking to landscape their yards. Have a look at this map for sites known to have contaminated fill on them (opens as .pdf). Silver Lake is damn near biologically dead-- the Department of Fish and Wildlife actually figure that it's easier to kill the adult fish and scoop them out (to be incinerated as hazardous material) than anything else, because it gets the PCBs which the fish have absorbed out of the ecosystem.

So anyways, the whole plant area and much of the river is a gigantic mess, and there has been a huge public outcry. There have been many lawsuits. The EPA is involved. The Mass DEP has people who work just on the GE cleanup. I am wondering if I couldn't weasel myself into a nice secure state job with vested pension and killer benefits by volunteering to oversee the GE mess, since nobody in the DEP seems to want anything to do with it.

Under a 1999 court case and government consent decree, GE is responsible for cleanup work then valued at a quarter billion dollars. Feel free to adjust for inflation, and the new areas of stuff discovered since '99.

Cleanup is proceeding, not very rapidly.... but as I can attest, cleanups just intrinsically take a long time.

The planned cleanup of a 1.5-mile stretch of river through downtown Pittsfield is expected to yield 43,200 cubic yards of sediment and 46,500 cubic yards of riverbank soil, all of which is assumed to be polluted.

I think I have got used to this environmental job, since my first thought on looking at something like that is not "god, how horrible" but "Ia Cthulhu, where the hell are they going to PUT it???? The largest cleanup I've ever worked on involved about 700 yards of material, and I remember how long that took and how large a hole it made. Piled up, 700 yards is the size of a couple of large houses, and then some. I can't even picture 43,200 yards in my head. The stuff I dug up had oil in it, and you can just recycle that into asphalt and pave a driveway with it. You can't do that with PCBs; one of the big drags on cleanups like the GE is figuring out what to DO with the dangerous crap once you've found it and dug it up.

Perhaps it's just because I'm odd and have some sort of Sam Vimes outlook on justice, but it irritates me that the GE cleanup is being handled as a RCRA Corrective Action rather than a Superfund cleanup. I'm sure there's some good reasons for handling it that way, and that the actual results won't differ by much, but it still kind of offends me that this godsawful mess isn't a Superfund site.

If you want more info, I suggest the EPA Region 1 website. This is an overview map of most of the cleanup areas, also as a .pdf.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin. I’m pretty amazed at the amount of sheer vitriol that’s come out about this woman in the last week.

Seriously, John McCain announced her as his running mate barely a week ago, and already the scandals and skeletons in the closet have been piling up like there’s no tomorrow. A surprising number of these scandals have emerged from Alaskan sources, among Palin’s own constituents and particularly the residents of the town of Wasilla, of which she was mayor for six years. Despite her 80% approval rating among Alaskans, there appear to be some there who are definitely in a torch-and-pitchfork mood.

It’s not just angry people on the internet, either—Time Magazine, ABC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times have all written her off as a disaster.

Let’s call it as it is— she’s the governor of a state with fewer people than most large cities (670,000 people, about as many as the city of Baltimore, Maryland). She was mayor of Wasilla, a town with a population (2000 census) of fewer than 5,500 people from 1996 until 2002. [By contrast, my hometown had 14,000 in the same census year, and is still considered a Podunk by Massachusetts standards.] These really do not add up to the sort of qualifications I look for in a presidential or vice-presidential candidate. She has no foreign policy experience and no legislative experience.

On top of that, we have the following:

Her claim to be a small government reformer and corruption fighter is blatant hogwash. She publicly and vocally supported (in her official capacity as governor) the infamous ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ a $329 million dollar lump of particularly shameless pork (a bridge between two islands, paid for my the federal government) snared by Senator Ted Stevens, who is currently indicted for corruption. Palin has since contradicted herself by claiming to have opposed the bridge project all along. When public outcry killed the bridge project, Palin diverted the money to other pet projects, and then claimed the credit for stopping the boondoggle she had helped push.

The Republican culture of corruption extends even here, no surprise; Senator Ted Stevens is one of the world champs in bringing home the pig products; for all the image of the hardy frontier, Alaska receives far more in federal subsidies than any other state in the country. The entire Republican apparatus is reeling under the brunt of investigations, indictments, and revelations of gross corruption. Given the size of the Alaskan political community and Palin’s involvement in it, it is virtually impossible that she wasn’t involved in this personally, and indeed she accepted $4,500 in campaign contributions in the same VECO fundraising affair that led to Stevens’ indictments.

She’s a glutton for pork; Wasilla collected over $27 million in federal subsidies and public works funding during her second term as mayor, and had its own lobbying firm on retainer.

While mayor of Wasilla, she blew $15,000,000 in public funds (more than twice the town’s entire annual operating budget) on a multi-use sports arena and convention center that still hasn’t broken even, and receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in state subsidies. She raised the sales tax on groceries 2% to pay for it all. Why in the world does a town of a few thousand people need something like this?

While mayor, she investigated the possibility of removing books she deemed to be offensive from the public library, going so far as to attempt to fire the librarian when the librarian objected.

She was nearly recalled as mayor after sacking most of the town government and replacing them with cronies. After a public outcry over abuse of power, the mayor’s office was subsequently stripped of most of it’s power, which was turned over to a town manager (yet another Palin crony). Sound familiar?

She’s the nexus of ‘Troopergate,’ in which she sacked the public safety commissioner who refused to fire her sister’s ex-husband, in a glaring example of her abuse of power.

She’s already under investigation by the Alaska state legislature over Troopergate, among other things, including her involvement in a business that was shut down by state order for failure to obey the law.

She sacked the entire state Board of Agriculture and Conservation in a feud with the state Creamery Board over a failing state-run business that she wanted to keep open, then replaced them with cronies.

Her husband works in the oil and gas industry—an employee of British Petroleum, specifically-- which accounts for nearly half of the Alaskan state economy. Pretty much anything she did as governor or would do in the White House as far as energy policy would fail any reasonable conflict-of-interest test.

She’s a fan (and longtime supporter) of Pat Buchanan, whose statements such as 1990’s “Capitol Hill is Israeli-occupied territory” earned him his own page on the Anti-Defamation League’s website, as well as a supporter of Jews for Jesus, a controversial group that attempts to convert Jews to evangelical Christianity.

She has repeatedly made public statements about how US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are 'are on a mission from God.’ Fine words from Jake Blues, but not for this.

She turned the town’s healthy budget surplus into a crippling deficit in just a few years (sound familiar?).

She campaigned for both mayor and governor as an outspoken Christian, a fiscal conservative, and an advocate of small government; public records are silent on the former, but government size and spending bloated enormously (Wasilla’s expenditures jumped 49%) whenever and wherever she was in charge (sound familiar?).

A governor, she eviscerated social services, including programs that supported single mothers and pregnant teenagers.

She has over the past twelve years earned a reputation for fighting dirty, vindictiveness (see Troopergate and the dairy board matter) and cronyism. After eight years of George Bush and Dick Cheney, we need a break.

She has hired an attorney on a $95,000 retainer (payable out of government funds, as he represents her both as a private individual and as governor) to defend her against accusations of abuse of power.

She has requested that her church fellows pray in favor of a $30 billion natural gas pipeline project (yet more federal money) that she has been trying to push through as governor. (Really, this is just crass to the point of being laughable).

I’ll skip all the stuff about how she has a Down’s Syndrome baby (having hid the pregnancy from the public and most of her family for seven months), is supposedly a rabid hunter, her atrocious people skills, and her lack of anything like public dignity (e.g. she giggled when a right-wing talk radio host on whose show she was appearing referred to an opponent of hers as a cancer, knowing that said opponent actually had cancer). That’s beside the point. George Bush has already lowered the dignity bar quite a ways.

The 500-pound troll in the room, however, is this. The vice-president of the United States is literally a heartbeat away from being president. Serious business. They can also wield significant power and influence on their own, depending on the climate and personalities in the administration; case in point, Dick Cheney.

McCain apparently picked her after meeting her just once, for fifteen minutes, the day before she was announced as the pick, and with little or no preliminary vetting. McCain’s staff even wrote her acceptance speech for her.

The fact that McCain would pick someone who is not only grossly underqualified to be president, but who has so many skeletons in their personal and official closets that they can humiliate the Republican party’s ticket this badly in the space of just a week, raises serious questions about McCain’s own judgment on the matter.

It’s also rather laughable that McCain shot himself in the foot in this fashion—he juxtaposes age and experience, but picked someone who has neither, and who by his own alleged standards wouldn’t be suited to take over in the event that McCain’s age catches up with him.

On a more personal level, there are also a few more strikes against her.

She is a creationist, and advocated the teaching of creationism in Alaskan public schools. For me, this is a big disqualifier. You can be a devout Christian without being a creationist, but you can’t be a creationist (particularly a biblical literalist) without essentially writing off most of the scientific knowledge gathered over the last century and a half, at least. In my opinion, people who embrace these ideas are not sufficiently grounded in empiricism and reality to be good leaders.

She is an evangelical Pentecostal who can’t seem to keep her public duties and private beliefs separate. With all respect, I think we have had quite enough right-wing holy rollers in the White House lately, and that we do not need any more.

She cannot correctly pronounce ‘nuclear.’ This is just a failing grade right from the start.

Her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. Palin cut funding for sex education (like Bush, she advocates teaching abstinence only) and social services for teenage and unwed mothers. This is nothing short of elemental irony.