This week: public lands protected, national emergency declared, riots in Haiti, and several pipeline and science stories.
1. Immense public lands bill passes.
Let’s start with some good news! Millions of acres of public land and miles of wild rivers will be protected under a bill passed by the Senate last week. In an atmosphere where environmental protections are being eroded and national monuments are under siege, the bill is a startling win for conservation forces. The bill—which included protections for wilderness areas—was successful because it gave almost every senator voting something he or she needed, according to the New York Times. It is expected to pass in the House and be signed by Trump.
2. Militarized response to pipeline protests planned.
Via Freedom of Information Act documents, the Intercept has determined that police in Minnesota are bracing for a confrontation with those who would protest the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, a 1,031-mile replacement pipeline that would take an additional hundreds of thousands of barrels/day through Ojibwe lands. The documents reveal that law enforcement offices consulted with counterparts in North Dakota responsible for the violent suppression of Dakota Access Pipelines protests.
To add insult to injury, among records the Intercept obtained was an email in which their investigative reporter was described as “William Parrish out of California who claims to be a ‘journalist’.”
Following the release of these records, the overwhelmingly-Republican North Dakota Senate has voted for a bill to ban the release of public records on “critical infrastructure facilities,” including pipelines; it goes next to the House of Representatives. Advocates claim the restrictions are needed to prevent cybersecurity attacks.
The current Line 3 pipeline runs at half-capacity due to age and corrosion.
3. Mueller summons Cambridge Analytica representative
News You May Have Missed has tried to keep tabs on Cambridge Analytica, the organization that enabled the Trump campaign to target voters through social media. Now Brittany Kaiser, former business development director of Cambridge Analytica, has been subpoenaed by the Mueller investigation. Kaiser told Parliament last April that the company had operated to influence the “leave” vote in the Brexit campaign. Among the stakes here is whether she persuaded WikiLeaks to release emails before the election. [Guardian]
4. The border non-emergency
a. Stop us if you’ve heard this one
California’s Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra says he will file a lawsuit to contest the declaration.
b. How do drugs enter the US?
On Friday, February 15th, Customs and Border Patrol announced that they had seized 221 pounds of cocaine in two late-January busts of ships entering at Port Hueneme, a small port 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The ships had initially come from Guatemala and Ecuador. The seizures followed a January 17th joint enforcement action by US and Australian authorities in which over 3,000 pounds of meth, 55 pounds of cocaine, and 11 pounds of heroin were seized at the Long Beach/Los Angeles seaport.
According to the DEA’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment Report (pdf), the majority of heroin entering the United States enters through legal ports of entry in private vehicles or in tractor-trailers, co-mingled with legal goods. A September 2018 report from the Post Office Inspector General’s office (pdf) also showed that smugglers are increasingly relying on the mail to ship drugs into the United States.
c. National Guard troops withdrawn from California and New Mexico
400 National Guard troops sent to the California border by former governor Jerry Brown are being withdrawn by current governor, Gavin Newsom. Newsom says that they will be redeployed, 110 to California’s fire agency and 100 to address international criminal gangs.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham withdrew most of the National Guard troops from New Mexico’s border last week; in a statement, she said, “New Mexico will not take part in the president’s charade of border fear-mongering by misusing our diligent National Guard troops.”
d. Immigrants aren’t a threat
According to Military Times, troops assigned to the border do not view immigration across the border or Mexico as significant threats; an October poll showed that 60% of those surveyed believe that immigration poses little or no threat to US security, and 77% viewed Mexico as little to no threat. They rated cyberterrorism, Russia, and China as more significant threats.
It has long been reported that, despite claims made by the President, illegal crossings at the southern border remain at historically-low levels. According to Forbes, illegal entry from Mexico has fallen by over 90% since 2000 and the number of people without documents living in the United States has fallen by around 1 million people since 2010. Border Patrol apprehensions of those illegally crossing the southern border in fiscal year 2017 were at the 5th-lowest level in 30 years, per their own data.
5. Your weekly reminder that we’re imprisoning children at the border.
a. NPR profile of Homestead
As of December 2018, nearly 15,000 children were apprehended at the U.S. southern border, some arriving as unaccompanied minors and others separated from their family members, now living in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. NPR profiled the largest of these facilities, the “temporary influx facility” in Homestead, Florida which houses 1,600 boys ages 13-17 at a cost of about $775/day/child or around $1.2 million per day. The largest of these facilities, Homestead is the only one run by a for-profit company, and the only one not overseen by state regulators. While a tour showed services and perks for children in the facility, advocates for the boys note that the children have experienced trauma and that they see the effects of trauma in their clients. (NYMHM notes that those separated from their family are experiencing ongoing trauma at the hands of the government.)
b. Inspector General finds moldy food at detention center
Yet another report (pdf) has identified abusive conditions at an immigration detention center, this time in New Jersey. Upon making a surprise visit last week, the Inspector General’s office has found that the correctional facility in Essex New Jersey, which can house up to 900 men, served detainees moldy and spoiled food. Conditions were so bad that the inspection team fired the kitchen manager on the spot.
The Inspector General’s report follows numerous other documents about this and other facilities about conditions that are a danger to health—among these was one we described last fall about the Department of Homeland Security’s investigation of conditions at an ICE shelter, revealed by the Center for Public Integrity.
c. Center for migrant children to be built on toxic waste site
Earthjustice and other environmental organizations have used public records to show that the government is planning to build a shelter that would house 7,500 unaccompanied children at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. As Earthjustice wrote, “The area is said to be contaminated with lead, arsenic, benzene, PFAS, and other chemicals associated with increased risk of cancer and neurodevelopmental damage.” See their “Toxic Cages” report for details (pdf).
The administration is fighting a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that would provide further details on the site and the planning process.
6. And finally, this week in government hyperbole.
The Department of the Interior has announced several mining operations with the headline The War on Coal is Over.
7. Why are there riots in Haiti?
In 2005, 14 Caribbean countries signed a series of bilateral agreements between Venezuela and participating countries, collectively referred to as PetroCaribe, which provide financing to allow those countries to buy oil at very favorable credit terms, with 40% of funds going to a development fund for social programs.
In November 2017, a Haitian senate commission released a preliminary report finding that PetroCaribe funds had been mismanaged and that the country owed Venezuela over $80 million in back-payments as of September 2016. Haitian activists have been demanding an audit of the PetroCaribe funds, using the #PetroCaribeChallenge hashtag, as well as sit-ins and demonstrations in the capitol, Port-au-Prince.
President Trump’s concurrent economic sanctions against Venezuela gave Haiti an excuse not to pay. In January 2019, Haiti’s governing party decided not to recognize the re-election of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, siding with the U.S. and many other Western democracies. (Haiti is in the minority: 12 of 15 other Caribbean countries are criticizing the U.S. recognition of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as “carrying out a coup d’ etat.”)
In January 2019, Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors released a report of nearly $2 billion in misappropriated PetroCaribe funds, with another report due in April. The Guardian reports that now almost $4 billion in funding from PetroCaribe, earmarked for social development, seems to have gone missing. Anger at government corruption, amidst the extreme poverty of the country (about 59% live under the national poverty line) and the 15% inflation rate, has exploded into riots and violence leading to a country on lockdown with businesses, schools, and public transit shut down, roads barricaded, and hospitals struggling with lack of supplies.
Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moise (whose 2015 election was thrown out due to fraud, and whose election in 2016 with 21% voter turnout also sparked protests over suspected election shenanigans and money-laundering allegations), is refusing to step down and blaming the prime minister, Jean-Henry Ceant, who he chose to be PM in August 2018 after the previous PM, Jack Guy Lafontant, resigned over the fuel riots happening then. PM Ceant announced Saturday that government officials would lose perks like vehicles, phone cards, and paid travel in anti-corruption measures including a full audit, and promises to speak with factory owners about increasing the minimum wage.
The U.S. is considering sending food aid to Haiti to help address what is turning into a humanitarian crisis. The Miami Herald characterizes the relationship between the U.S. and Haiti as “a cooling of tensions” due to Haiti siding with Washington on the issue of who should rule Venezuela.
The U.S. is also attempting to send food and medicine to Venezuela against the wishes of Maduro but with the support of Guaidó.
For easier sharing, we’ve also published this item as its own post.
8. Who controls Canada’s indigenous land?
The issue of whether Canada can impose a pipeline on First Nations land is now before the courts. Coastal GasLink is building a 420-mile long pipeline which would bring gas from interior BC to the port of Kitimat, negotiating deals with elected indigenous councils along the route. However, the elected and hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en people; according to the BBC, “have jurisdiction within the boundaries of the reservations to administer federal government legislation, but not the wider traditional territory which the pipeline would pass through.” Hereditary chiefs say the consultation was not meaningful and indeed that they object to the imposition of the pipeline on environmental grounds.
9. Young women leading climate change movement in Europe
A major movement in Europe against climate change is being led primarily by teenage girls, many of them girls of color, according to BuzzFeed. Tens of thousands of girls have skipped class and led marches, including one of 12,000 people in The Hague last week, the largest protest the Netherlands has seen. 100,000 people attended a climate march in Brussels last weekend. Many girls were inspired by Greta Thunberg from Sweden, who picketed in front in front of the Swedish Parliament every Friday to demand that Sweden honor the Paris Climate Accords.
A New York seventh-grader, Alexandria Hogue, who was made ill by smoke from the California Camp Fire and inspired by Thunberg, has gone to the UN every week and galvanized environmental movements worldwide. A youth-led climate protest is planned for the U.S. on March 15.
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE ENVIRONMENT
10. Cow Deaths Signal Climate Change
Unless you’re a dairy farmer in the state of Washington, you’re unlikely to have heard about the more than 1,600 cows who died on February 9th in a blizzard there, which represents a devastating emotional loss and economic losses of about $3.2 million (plus future production losses).
The white-out snowstorm with 30 to 50 mph winds and gusts up to 80 mph was part of the same weather system that closed highways, caused power outages and local flooding, and led the governor to declare a state of emergency. AccuWeather notes, “This makes this February Seattle’s snowiest in recorded history, beating out the 13.1 inches that fell during February 1949.” Winter Storm Maya moved east through the last week, causing more damage. It’s the third of four named winter storms in February.
IFL Science explains how “the heaviest snowfalls … are becoming more likely in mid-winter because of human-induced climate change.”
Washington state’s infrastructure received a C grade last month from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which, alarmingly, is still better than the national average of D+. As climate change worsens, this poor infrastructure will be increasingly stress-tested.
11. New AI program is too good to release
The OpenAI team in California has announced that it will not release the dataset behind their newest algorithm designed to create convincing text. The algorithm, GPT-2, can create completely made-up news articles, product reviews, essays, blog posts, etc. from being fed just a sentence or two and building on it. The text it produces is so convincing and natural that it has given researchers pause, worrying that it could be easily misused for propaganda and misinformation purposes.
The algorithm works somewhat like the predictive text feature on smart phones, by anticipating the most natural word to follow the word before, but works from a vast dataset of millions of webpages—and requires no micromanaging. The development blog for the program said:
We’ve trained a large-scale unsupervised language model which generates coherent paragraphs of text, achieves state-of-the-art performance on many language modeling benchmarks and performs rudimentary reading comprehension, machine translation, question answering and summarization—all without task-specific training.
12. Amazon abandons plans for New York City HQ
Readers last week learned of the growing resistance in New York City regarding Amazon’s decision to build a secondary headquarters in Queens, splitting the location with Washington, DC. Backlash was substantial enough for Amazon to announce it is pulling out of the planned HQ. Citing a lack of support among elected officials, which the company describes as vital to any project’s success, it will now concentrate solely on the Washington DC location. Washington’s incentives package is composed of $750 million in tax breaks, while the New York City location offered a far larger $3 billion. Activists balked at the audacity of giving away 3 billion dollars to a company headed by the richest man in the world. This represents the most significant victory against the now-standard practice of paying successful companies for the privilege of their presence in cities and states.
13. Which is why Google is doing this…
The Washington Post reports that Google is using a system of shell companies and non-disclosure agreements to obscure a substantial number of the company’s real estate holdings to secure millions of dollars in tax incentives without public outcry.
Internet service companies like Google use dozens of large warehouses full of servers, called data centers, which consume large amounts of public resources like electricity and water to power and cool row upon row of machines. While there is some legitimacy in keeping data center locations secret, as they represent dangerous targets for sabotage, it seems as if the primary reason for the shell game is to prevent the public from knowing Google is behind the data centers, and asking why public funds are being provided to the largest, most financially-successful companies in the United States.
- Sarah-Hope once again offers opportunities to send letters and postcards to those in a position to act. To get to her site, it’s best to type in whatifknits.com, and click on the Word doc. She explains the five bills on asylum seekers and separated families, one which offers pathways to citizenship for agricultural workers, climate change legislation currently before the House, a bill requiring that the Trump administration act in response to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and much more.
- Martha offers some helpful sites to track the rollback of environmental regulations as well as one to track deregulation in general. She also suggests some ways to provide on-the-record responses regarding SNAP benefits, Medicaid work requirements, patients’ rights, and many other issues. See her google doc.