About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.



Thursday, August 21, 2014

Railroad ‘Bomb Trains’: Speeding to Disaster



by Walter Brasch

      It’s 3 p.m., and you’re cruising down a rural road, doing about 50.
      A quarter mile away is a sign, with flashing yellow lights, alerting you to slow down to 15. It’s a school zone.
      But, you don’t see any children. Besides, you’re going to be late to your racquetball match. So, you just slide on past.
      You’re an independent long-haul trucker. You get paid by the number of miles you drive. If you work just a couple of hours longer every day than the limits set by the federal government—and if you can drive 75 or 80 instead of 65, you can earn more income. You have your uppers and energy drinks, so you believe you should be able to work a couple of hours a day more than the regulations, and drive faster than established speed limits.     Now, let’s pretend you’re the CEO of a railroad. Your trains have been hauling 100 tanker cars of crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in Philadelphia and the Gulf Coast. That’s 100 tankers on each train. A mile long.
    About 90 percent of the 106,000 tanker cars currently in service were built before 2011 when stricter regulations mandated a new design. The older cars are susceptible to leaks, explosions, and fires in derailments. But, because of intense lobbying by the railroads, they are still carrying oil.
      Railroad derailments in the United States last year accounted for more than one million gallons of spilled oil, more than all spills in the 40 years since the federal government began collecting data. The oil pollutes the ground and streams; the fires and explosions pollute the air.
    Most of the derailments threatened public safety and led to evacuation of residential areas. One derailment led to the deaths of 47 persons, the destruction of a business district, and an estimated $2 billion for long-term pollution clean-up and rebuilding of homes and businesses. Three derailments, including one in a residential area of Philadelphia, occurred this past year in Pennsylvania.
      The derailment and explosions of “bomb trains” became so severe that in May the Department of Transportation declared the movement by trains of crude oil  from North Dakota derived by the process known as fracking posed an “imminent hazard.”
      The federal government wants to reduce the speed limit for those trains carrying highly toxic and explosive crude oil.
      If you’re Hunter Harrison, CEO of Canadian Pacific (CP), you say you “don’t know of any incidents with crude that’s being caused by speed,” and then tell your investors, “We don’t get better with speed [reduction]. We get worse.”
      If you’re Charles Moorman, CEO of Norfolk Southern, you agree completely with your colleague from CN, and say that a higher speed limit is safe.
      If you’re Michael Ward, CEO of freight giant CSX, you say that lower speed limits “severely limit our ability to provide reliable freight service to our customers.”
      You and your fellow CEOs have even had one dozen meetings with White House officials to explain why slower speeds are not in the nation’s best interest. You explain that your railroad should be allowed to determine the best speed for your trains.
      Driving a car through a school zone, you don’t have the right to determine your best speed.
      Driving a truck on interstate highways, you don’t have the right to determine your maximum speed.
      But, if you’re a multi-billion dollar railroad industry, you think you have the right to set the rules.

      [Dr. Brasch is a former newspaper and magazine writer and editor. He is the author of 20 books, most fusing historical and contemporary social issues. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.] 

Friday, August 15, 2014

House Committee: No Benghazi Scandal



by Walter Brasch

            The House Select Committee on Intelligence, following almost a two-year intense investigation, unanimously determined there is no basis for what has become known as the Benghazi Scandal.
      The Committee consists of 12 Republicans and 9 Democrats.
      The pretend-scandal began Sept. 11, 2012, when terrorists raided the U.S. consulate, and killed the ambassador and three others.
      Although there was confusion, and the Obama administration didn’t have all the facts when it began to inform the American people about the events and the causes, there was no evidence of anything even remotely linked to a scandal. However, as expected, the blathering mouths of the Extreme Right Wing media pundits and politicians, and those who blindly parrot their “talking points” in bars, on front porches, and hunting lodges, kept caterwauling about scandal.
      Among the findings of the House Committee, all of which conflict with the manufactured propaganda by the Extreme Right Wing:
      --There was no stand-down order given to any personnel–military or civilian–who tried to assist. This information is consistent with testimony provided to the House Armed Services Committee.  In contrast, immediate response by the United States prevented additional injuries and deaths.
      --Although Intelligence agencies were warned about a possible threat, there was no advance knowledge of what was planned.
      -- The Extreme Right Wing attacked Ambassador Susan Rice for her initial reports, possibly worried that President Obama would nominate her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was planning to leave the Administration after more than four years.
       Although there was a lack of coordination between the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, and the White House, the Obama Administration did not deliberately mislead the American people. Committee Member Adam Schiff said evidence suggests, “The initial talking points provided by the Intelligence Community were flawed because of conflicting assessments, not an intention to deceive.” As new information became available, the Administration informed the people.
--All activities by the CIA were legal and authorized.
      --There was no illegal activity or illegal arms trading that allowed any weapons provided by the U.S. to get into the hands of the terrorists.
      Now, here is also what is known.
      --In contrast to Extreme Right Wing allegations that the Obama Administration has done nothing to find those who killed the four Americans, the person believed to have been the leader of the attacks, Ahmed Abu Khattalah, is in federal custody, awaiting trial. The United States has identified and is conducting operations to bring other terrorists to trial.
      --Ambassador Christopher Stevens five months before the attack had requested additional military security. However, his request was denied. The reason? The Republican-led obstructionist Congress had earlier refused to fund additional personnel and budget for embassy and consulate security.
      --During the George W. Bush administration, terrorists killed 60 personnel in 10 separate attacks at U.S. consulates and embassies. There were no outraged Republicans.
      Within a week of the seventh anniversary of 9/11, terrorists killed 16 at the U.S. embassy in Yemen. Americans grieved but did not launch a barrage of lies and half-truths, nor try to politicize the deaths of the 60 Americans.
      --The Extreme Right Wing, apparently worried that Hillary Clinton would become the leading candidate for president, has willfully and maliciously attacked her leadership during this crisis, hoping to tarnish her reputation and reduce the possibility she will become the nation’s first female president.
      Given the reality that a thorough investigation by a Republican-led House committee shows there is no scandal, you’d expect the rest of the House to drop its $3.3 million investigation that they increased for political purposes months before the November mid-term elections.
      You’d also expect Fox News empty heads who have been screeching “scandal!” almost 24/7 for two years to either admit they were wrong or to just shut up.
      You’d expect that. But, you won’t get it in an atmosphere fueled by hate and prejudice.
      [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the health, environmental, economic, and political issues of horizontal fracturing .]



Saturday, August 2, 2014

AIDS Advances May be Compromised by Legislative Inaction



      Researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia may have found an entry-way to the cure for AIDS.
      Once the HIV virus enters the body it can lie dormant for years. It can also evolve into AIDS.  But, until now, it could never be removed. 
      It’s far too early to claim an AIDS cure—there still has to be several years of clinical trials— but this may be as close to a solution as scientists have come.
      There can be a lot of politics in medical science, but the researchers at least have the wisdom to know they must work together and focus upon the people not the politics.
      Even if there is a cure for AIDS, even if there are significant advances in the treatment and cure of other communicable diseases, it may not mean much if patients can’t get the medical treatment they need because obstructionists are doing their best to separate the people from the solution.
      Two hours west of Philadelphia is Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state capital. This is where Gov. Tom Corbett and his well-oiled legislature shut down 15 of 60 public health clinics, have plans to shut down nine more to “save” about $3 million a year, and laid off 73 nurses and support staff. In July, the state Supreme Court issued an emergency injunction to prevent the state from shutting down more health clinics, and is reviewing a petition to force the administration to reopen the other clinics. Under the Corbett administration, Pennsylvania ranks 43rd of 50 states in per capita public health spending, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The governor also vetoed a budget item to spend $2 million a year from tax revenue generated by oil and gas companies to do research about the effects of fracking upon the people’s health, to provide health care information, to treat those who may have been affected by air and water pollution from fracking, and to establish a health care registry that would help identify problems. But he was more than willing to give all kinds of tax breaks to oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, a foreign corporation, which he handed a $1.7 billion tax credit. If the state taxed gas extraction companies at a rate at least that of other states, there would be at least another $500 million a year that could be used to help protect the people’s health and their environment.
      More than 50 times, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has tried to wipe the Affordable Care Act (ACA) off the books. This quixotic mission will continue to fail for two reasons. First, the Supreme Court of the United States, which has a majority of conservatives, ruled the Act is constitutional. Second, all evidence shows the Act has led to better health care and at least 2.3 million Americans covered who couldn’t get insurance prior to the passage of the ACA. More than eight million Americans have already signed up for ACA coverage, and are now receiving better health care at lower insurance rates. Further, because of the ACA, more than 5.5 million senior citizens and disabled have saved about $4.5 billion on prescription drugs in the past three years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Fourteen “red” states have chosen not to be a part of the ACA, their legislatures adamantly refusing to agree to anything that President Obama has proposed, even if it means the people suffer. The impartial Rand Corp. estimates these states will spend about $1 billion more taxpayer funds than if they expanded Medicaid under ACA provisions. Because of their refusal to agree to the ACA, almost four million residents of their states will continue to be uninsured, forcing the state and hospitals to pay for emergency medical care for low-income individuals. (In Pennsylvania, with a Republican governor and legislature, if the state agreed to implement the ACA, the savings would be about $600 million the first year.) However, the rabid Right Wing has continued to sling a barrage of lies and half-truths, usually picked up, channeled, and reported by the mass media. The time and money devoted to this political gesturing by Right Wing politicians could better be spent on funding research to find cures for Ebola, multiple sclerosis, numerous forms of cancers, and dozens of other life-threatening diseases.
      This is the same Congress that had blocked funding to improve the VA system, while spending $3 million this year alone to investigate what they have created as the Benghazi Scandal. It’s already been investigated and re-investigated. Senior military commanders and impartial diplomats have already told the truth, but the House still wants to throw out its chest and throw a junior-high tantrum. Think of what that $3 million can do to help the nation’s homeless, about one-fourth of them veterans.
      Members of Congress believe they have to travel all over the world on what they call “fact-finding tours.” These tours often find facts in tropical island nations.  And now, thanks to a decision by the apparently misnamed House Ethics Committee, members of Congress don’t even have to report if their trips were funded by lobbyists. Think of what several million more dollars can do to help improve the health of the impoverished rather than help members of Congress get sun tans.
      It’s just politics. But, how many more will suffer and die from our misguided priorities.
      [Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks at the health, environmental, economic, and political effects from fracking.]


Saturday, July 26, 2014



Packing Heat in the Brothers’ ’Hood


by Walter Brasch

     A group of white gun-rights advocates plan to sling rifles, shotguns, and semi-automatic assault weapons onto their bodies, and walk through a Black neighborhood in Houston.
     What could possibly go wrong with that?!
     The march through Houston’s Fifth Ward is planned for August 16 to educate Texans about their rights to openly carry firearms.
     To deflect criticism that the march is racially-insensitive, the testosterone-enhanced group, apparently with straight faces to hide its freeze-dried minds, says all it wants is for racial equality.
     It says because the state charges $250 for a gun permit, it unfairly discriminates against Blacks who have twice the poverty rate as Whites, and that’s why the Whites are going to march in a Black neighborhood.
     Not only are these civil rights leaders going to “help” the Blacks, they even found a Black to march with them.
     That Black is Maurice Muhammad, who believes it’s acceptable to kill police officers, and who has openly called for a race war in the country.
     The leader of the march is C.J. Grisham, who won’t be carrying a concealed weapon. Whatever he carries will be out in the open. That’s because he has a criminal record that forbids him from carrying a concealed weapon. His conviction stems from an incident in 2013 when he carried an AR-15 on an urban hike with his teenage son—because, you never know when a herd of feral kittens will attack you. His hike occurred not far from Fort Hood where, in 2009, an Army officer launched an assault that left 13 dead and 30 wounded.
     A police officer stopped Grisham; he resisted. In Texas, it’s legal to openly carry semi-automatic assault weapons; it is not legal to resist arrest and attack police officers. Grisham was so upset that his most sacred of all rights—the right to openly be stupid—was violated that he created Open Carry Texas. A jury later found him guilty of interfering with the duties of a police officer. He was fined $2,000, the maximum penalty.
     Between arrest and conviction, he and his newly-formed posse decided that because Texas allows the open display of weapons of semi-mass destruction they would just go to a few department stores and restaurants, carrying their big boy toys. As expected, customers panicked, and store managers asked them not to take their guns to town. Naturally, CJ and his hole-in-the-head gang had to explain their rights under Texas law, leading to headlines and a PR disaster. A couple of months later, because sometimes it takes awhile to realize the implications of mental derangement, OCT announced it wouldn’t unleash its arsenal on Chuckie Cheese. Grisham told the Dallas News the reason was because “the gun-control extremists had hijacked our photos, and it was taking away from the focus of our mission.” Apparently, Grisham didn’t mind terrorizing Texas citizens; he did mind that liberals had pictures of what he was doing. Nevertheless, for those who miss being terrorized by nimrods showing off their phallic symbols, they can just show up at the Almeda or Galleria malls near Houston every Saturday morning.
     Grisham continued his somewhat uncivil protest at a Veteran’s Day celebration at the state capitol in Austin. The Texas legislature and the executive branch oppose all them gal-dang lib’ral gun control freaks who cite statistics like how the more than 330,000 Americans were killed in the first decade of the 21st century, more than 20 times greater than all the deaths in 22 countries that are closest to the U.S. in wealth and population. They dismiss statistics that reveal there is a 22 times greater possibility of death by firearms if a home has a gun as opposed to one that doesn’t have a gun. They sneer at the facts there are more pre-school children are killed by guns than police officers killed in the line of duty.
     These heavily-lobbied legislators believe everyone has a constitutional right to carry and shoot off their mouths or someone else’s legs. But, they also believe there shouldn’t be any guns in the Texas capitol. It’s a survival issue—if the press, visiting school children, and cantankerous legislators all had guns, within a few months there would have to be new elections to replace those who gave their lives for the cause of gun rights advocacy.
     The cost to taxpayers of interim elections is a problem for a state that has willingly accepted being under siege by the Tea Party whackadoodle brigade whose mantra of “no guvmint; no taxes” is its justification for whatever it’s trying to justify.
     Grisham was politely told three times by police to remove his handgun; three times he explained, in a way that family newspapers can’t reproduce exactly, how he had his rights. Grisham is now trying to convince the Texas legislature that openly carrying handguns, just like in the Wild West, is also the citizens’ rights.
     Would there be the same level of Second Amendment concern if a Black or Hispanic gang strapped on weapons and marched through white suburbia— just peaceful-like, y’know. Just to educate the folk about the right to carry guns.
     [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, is author of 20 books, including Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall view of the health, environmental, political, and economic issues.]


Friday, July 11, 2014

Passing Gas to the Consumer



by Walter Brasch

      Gas prices at the pump during the July 4th extended weekend were the highest they have been in six years. This, of course, has little to do with supply-and-demand economics. It has everything to do with supply-and-gouge profits.
    Over the past decade, the five largest oil companies have earned more than $1 trillion in profits. Last year, the Big Five—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell—earned about $93 billion in profits. Their CEOs last year earned an average of about $20 million. Included within the profits is $2.4 billion in taxpayer subsidies because it’s hard to make a living when your hourly wage, assuming you work every hour of every day, is only $2,283.
    “We have been subsidizing oil companies for a century. That’s long enough,” President Obama said more than a year ago. The Senate disagreed. Forty-three Republicans and four Democrats blocked the elimination of subsidies. Although the final vote was 51–47 to end the subsidies, a simple majority was not enough because the Republicans threatened a filibuster that would have required 60 votes to pass the bill. A Think Progress financial analysis revealed that the 47 senators who voted to continue subsidies received almost $23.6 million in career contributions from the oil and gas industry. In contrast, the 51 senators who had voted to repeal the subsidies received only about $5.9 million.
      For a couple of decades, the oil industry blamed the Arabs for not pumping enough oil to export to the United States. But when the Arab oil cartel (of which the major U.S. oil companies have limited partnerships) decided to pump more oil, the Americans had to look elsewhere for their excuses. In rapid succession, they blamed Mexico, England, the Bermuda Triangle, polar bears who were lying about climate change so they could get more ice for their diet drinks, and infertile dinosaurs.
      This year, the oil companies blamed ISIS, a recently-formed terroristic fringe group composed primarily of Sunni Muslims, who have opposed Shia Muslims for more than 14 centuries. Think of the Protestant–Catholic wars in Ireland. Because ISIS was laying a path of destruction through Iraq, the oil companies found it convenient to declare that oil shipments were threatened, and then raise prices, salivating at their good fortune that terrorists had come to their financial assistance during the Summer holidays.
      However, because the oil companies have laid a thick propaganda shield upon the America people to make them believe that fracking the environment and destroying public health, while yielding only temporary job growth, will lead to less dependence upon the Arab nations and lower costs to Americans, the Industry has to come up with some excuses to drill the taxpayers.
      Through deft journalistic intrigue and a lifetime of investigative reporting, I was able to obtain insider information from the ultra secret Gas and Oil Unified Greedy Excuse Maker sub-committee (GOUGEM). I have not been able to verify the transcript, but in the developing tradition of 21st century journalism, that doesn’t really matter.

      “We have a problem,” declared the GOUGEM Grand Caliph “We have run out of excuses. Last year, we had to find excuses not only for the Summer vacations, but also to justify our surreptitious funding of the Benghazi investigation.”
      “There must be a hundred different ways to nail Obama for this year’s increase,” declared the Sunoco representative.
      “What if we claim that Obamacare caused gas prices to go up for ambulances,” said a newly-appointed representative from the Hess Corp.
      “Tried it last year, but we couldn’t get much traction,” said the Grand Caliph. “Only Fox, Limbaugh, and some guy broadcasting through a tin cup from his room at Bellevue picked it up.”
      “Afghanistan!”  shouted the Marathon representative. “We’ve gotten good mileage from blaming the war for the cost of gas.”
      “Yeah,” said the Tesoro rep sarcastically, “while we’ve been reaping enough excessive profits to build a water park at every one of our executives’ McMansions. I’m afraid the American people after 13 years have finally caught on to that scam.”
      “If not Iraq and Afghanistan,” how about a new war? We invade Switzerland,” the ConocoPhillips rep suggested, “and claim we’re protecting the world from weapons of mass Swiss Army Knives. Every Republican and a few Democrats will back us on that.”
      “It only works if there’s oil in Switzerland,” said the Shell rep, “and since we haven’t developed the technology to frack the Matterhorn, we’ll have to find another reason to raise gas prices.”
      The BP rep suggested that the oil companies claim gas price increases were necessary because the price of Dawn detergent, used to clean oil-slicked marine mammals, went up.
      The Chevron  rep said they could blame the Treasury Department for their underhanded tactics in locating the companies’ tax-free stash in the Caymans.  “How could anyone complain about us needing more income to pay our lawyers?” she declared.
      The Valero rep wanted to blame the Veterans Administration. “We say we had to wait so long to get permission to raise gas prices that we had to do it ourselves,” he brightly said, and tagged that suggestion with the explanation that the companies could then claim they were being self-sufficient and not dependent upon the government. “The conservatives will love us,” he righteously declared.
       After a few moments of idle chatter, something committees have perfected, the Exxon Mobil rep spoke up. “We don’t need an excuse.”
      “You been inhaling too many fumes?” the Shell rep asked.
      “Slip on a grease spot in one of your garages?” asked the Murphy Oil rep.
      “We’ve always had an excuse,” the Shell rep whined. “Without an excuse, the motorist might not buy our gas.”
      “Oh, they’ll buy,” said the Exxon Mobil rep confidently. “We’ve bought out and eliminated most of the alternative fuel sources, public transportation is in the pits, and no one walks. That leaves cars, and they all run on what we decide they run on.”
      “So what’s your point?” asked the BP representative.
      “It’s as simple as 1-2-3,” the Exxon representative stated. “One. We’re Big Business. Two. We’ve already bought the Republican-controlled Congress. Three. We don’t need to justify anything.”
      By unanimous agreement, the gas bag cartel declared there would be a 10-cent a gallon hike by the end of Summer—and no excuse.
      [Dr. Brasch’s latest books are the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, a journalistic novel; and Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the health, environmental, economic, and political effects of horizontal fracturing.]



Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Post Office Isn’t a Dead Letter



by Walter Brasch

      Unless your life is centered upon an iPhone, an iPad, and an iEverything else, there is a possibility you may have actually bought a postage stamp, written a letter, and mailed it.
      Contrary to popular opinion, snail-mail isn’t dead. Every day, except Sunday, the U.S. Postal Service handles about 660 million pieces of mail, and delivers them to about 150 million homes, businesses, and government offices.
      However, there are a lot of people who wish the Postal Service was a dead letter. Here’s some of their claims—and the truth.
      They claim the Postal Service is a burden upon us hard-working taxpayers.
      Here’s the truth. The Postal Service is a quasi-government agency that doesn’t take taxpayer funds.
      They claim the Postal Service is losing money.
      Here’s the truth. That’s only because Congress in 2006 made it pre-fund health and pension benefits for 75 years. No other government agency or private company is required to do that. As a result, the Postal Service spends about $5.5 billion a year to meet an unreasonable demand by Congress. Last year, the Postal Service lost about $5 billion. Do the math.
      Here’s another reality. The Postal Service has made innumerable changes to improve its financial situation. It laid off 28,000 workers—layoffs are something the right wing loves. But, the Postal Service also wanted to close 3,700 smaller offices to save even more money. That’s when Congress got its panties in a knot, and squelched any attempt to close and consolidate rural offices or have larger nearby offices absorb them. After all, you can’t close a rural local Postal Service in a Congressional district where the member of Congress has the need to get votes for re-election. That’s also why Congress had a collective stroke when the Postal Service adeptly outfoxed it by laying out a plan to cut about $2 billion of costs a year by cutting Saturday service, except for certain services, including delivery of medicines and express mail. Congress, which has spent most of the past six years gazing at their navels and then became blinded by staring into TV lights, didn’t want any of that nonsense and protested, forcing the Postal Service to reverse its proposed Saturday schedule.
      The Postal Service has also proposed saving about $4.5 billion a year by stopping door-to-door delivery to about 35 million homes, and replacing it with a more efficient delivery to curbside mail boxes or clusters, such as what exist in apartment buildings. While saving money, there would be a huge disconnect that goes well beyond finances. The average homeowner, even if complaining about the Postal Service or its managers for any of a few dozen valid reasons usually respects the individual letter carrier who stops by daily, has a brief chat, and moves on to another house. Letter carriers also provide a service few other public servants can—they notice things. If a door is wide open and no one is at home, they may call police; if the resident is always on the porch when the mail is delivered or if mail piles up for two days, the letter carrier might also call police, just in case the resident had a medical emergency. And, every year there are stories of bravery among letter carriers who help save lives of homeowners who experience medical emergencies. There can be no price too high for the vigilance and the camaraderie these unionized governmental employees provide.
      Nevertheless, the right-wing claims the entire Postal Service staff are overpaid, from your local letter carrier to the postmaster general, who earns about $276,840 a year, significantly below the salary of any CEO with similar responsibilities. The Tea Party—“Don’t Tread on Me Cuz We’re Rabid”—mob thinks everyone in government service is overpaid. Pick apart the scab that is the right-wing, and you learn they want to turn the Postal Service into a private enterprise without those pesky unions that help assure workers have fair wages, benefits, grievance rights and, most important, decent working conditions.
      Under a private enterprise system, it’s quite possible the cost would no longer be upon only those who buy postage and other Postal Service services, but also upon those who receive mail. Persons who live in isolated and rural areas may have to pay larger fees than those in urban areas to receive mail. A private enterprise might increase its profits by accepting advertising—do you want an ad smeared onto your first class letter?—and “donations” from corporations to expedite certain mail to certain individuals. A private corporation, such as what some of the right-wing propose, would probably be more concerned with shareholder dividends than customer service. To maximize profits, the executive staff might resort to another private enterprise way to maximize profits by outsourcing the mail delivery to exploited workers in a third world nation.
      Although the Constitution mandates a lower postal rate for publications, which the Founding Fathers believed was necessary to further the spread of information, the private corporation or corporations that slice up the delivery of mail might even go as far as to want to repeal that Constitutional clause; after all, second class media mail isn’t all that profitable and, far more important, the semi-literates who yell for privatization probably don’t think there’s a need for all them lib’ral left wing propaganda pieces, like Time and Forbes anyhow.
      The Whackadoodle Wing, which has a morbid fear of anything that wasn’t created in the previous century, ironically cackles that the Postal Service is behind the times, that it falls well behind the technology of FedEx, UPS, and Ma Hoggworth’s All You Can Eat Diner and Firearms Exchange. The truth is the Postal Service, after lagging behind private industry, has upgraded and modernized its technology, and is adapting to the loss of first class mail revenue, which has been declining for the past decade because mankind took a bite of the Apple.
      Nevertheless, no matter how much efficiency and technology the Postal Service implements in the next decade, it will never match what happened in 1775. That’s the year Ben Franklin became the first postmaster general and created what, at that time, was the most efficient system in the world for delivering mail.
      If Franklin could see the country today, he would make a few suggestions to improve the Postal Service that others may not have thought about, but would probably approve what his creation had become. He would also recall the pettiness and politically-based lies that enveloped the Dark Ages of the early 19th century American politics, and might shed a tear of how far political pettiness and hatred had developed in the past decade.

      [When Dr. Brasch began his column more than 25 years ago, his syndicate mailed or faxed it to newspapers. Now, it’s sent electronically to both print and electronic newspapers. Dr. Brasch’s latest book, which his publisher can mail at the media rate, is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pennsylvania May Finally Ban Pigeon Shoots


by Walter Brasch

      HARRISBURG, Pa.--The Pennsylvania State senate may vote on a bill this week that will make it a first degree misdemeanor to kill a cat or dog “for the purpose of human consumption.” The penalty is a fine of $1,000-$10,000 and a maximum imprisonment of five years. Attached to the bill is an amendment proposed by Rep. John Maher (R-Upper St. Clair) to finally end the decades-old practice of organized live pigeon shoots. The amendment was sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R-Willow Grove), the committee chair; and Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Chambersburg).
      Following a second reading on Friday, the bill was scheduled for a vote, Sunday evening, but was delayed because the Senate is still grappling with the 2014-2015 budget bills, due by July 1.
      The Judiciary committee, Thursday, had voted 9-5 for the amendment, and 10-4 to send the bill to the full Senate. Voting against the bill to ban killing and eating dogs and cats, and to ban pigeon shoots, were Sens. John H. Eichelberger Jr. (R-Hollidaysburg ), John R. Gordner (R-Berwick), Gene Yaw (R-Williamsport), and Joseph B. Scarnati III (R-Brockway), the Senate president pro tempore. Gordner later claimed he voted against the bill because he objected to how the amendment was added at the “last minute.” However, the amendment, following long-time Senate rules that have applied to legislation for decades, had been circulated to members at least 24 hours before the vote. In the committee meeting, Gordner did not speak out about what he considered to be a problem with “last minute” amendments, and quietly voted “no” on a voice vote. Sen. John C. Rafferty (R-Collegeville) had voted against the pigeon shoot amendment, but voted to send the full bill, with amendment, to the Senate. Also voting to send the bill to the Senate were all five Democrats and five of the nine Republicans.
      The vote to advance the bill came following a furious last-minute lobbying effort by the NRA, which has consistently supported pigeon shoots. The leadership, as opposed to most of the membership, wrongly believes that banning animal cruelty by guns is a “slippery slope” that not only violates the Second Amendment but will lead to gun control bans. Pennsylvania is the last state where pigeon shoots are legally held.
      “The Judiciary committee took the first step to ending this horrifying and cruel practice,” says Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who has been campaigning to end this practice for almost three decades. “The public favors replacing live pigeons as targets with clay pigeons,” says Prescott, who does not oppose trap or skeet shoots.
      More than three-fourths of all Pennsylvanians want to see an end to pigeon shoots, according to a statewide survey by the independent Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Co. About four-fifth of all residents say the practice is animal cruelty.
Organizers of this blood sport place pigeons—many of them emaciated—into small cages, and place people with 12-gauge shotguns only about 20 yards away. The spring-loaded traps open, and the shooters open fire. Most of the birds are shot standing on their cages, on the ground, or flying erratically just a few feet from those who pretend they are sportsmen.
      Even at close range, the shooters don’t kill the birds. About three-fourths of them suffer a lingering death, according to data compiled by the HSUS. If the birds fall within the shooting range, teenagers will get the birds, wring their necks, stomp on their bodies, and usually stuff them into a barrel; some of the birds will slowly die from asphyxiation in the barrel.
      The teenagers and the clubs that sponsor the shoots consider the birds to be litter. Birds that do not fall on the shooting fields will fly into rivers, streams, and private property, to die a lingering and painful death. Most cannot be saved by HSUS animal rescue staff.
      At some of the shoots, as many as 5,000 birds will be killed or wounded. The remaining shoots, all in southeastern Pennsylvania, are also marked by an excess of drinking and illegal gambling, none of which is enforced by state police.
      Shoot organizers have also been accused, but never brought to trial, for assault and threats against civil protestors from SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness), humane societies, and others. DAs in Berks and Bucks counties, adjacent to Philadelphia, have refused to pursue citations filed by humane police officers, who have charged individuals with animal cruelty.
      Pigeon shooting, despite what the NRA and the shoot organizers claim, is not a sport. The only time it was considered a sport was in the 1900 Olympics. Following that competition, the International Olympic Committee declared pigeon shooting was animal cruelty, and banned it from the Olympics.
      Most hunters agree that organized pigeon shoots are a scar upon legitimate hunting. The Pennsylvania Game Commission declared pigeon shoots not to be fair- chase hunting. The birds cannot be used for meat, nor are their feather useful for any commercial enterprise.
      For more than three decades, leaders of the Pennsylvania legislature, most of whom have received funds from the NRA political action committee, have blocked passage of previous bills to ban pigeon shoots. Tom Corbett, in his successful campaign for governor in 2010, received $4,500 in direct contributions and almost $390,000 in in-kind contributions from the NRA Political Victory Fund. The last time a free-standing vote came up was in the House in 1989.
      In addition to the Humane Society of the United States and SHARK, both of which the NRA calls radical extremist organizations, supporting the end of pigeon shoots are the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
            [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and author of 20 books, the most recent, Fracking Pennsylvania.]


Friday, June 20, 2014

Scientists Predict Increased Rain, Floods for Northeast


by Walter Brasch

      Persons living in the Mid-Atlantic and New Englanbd states will experience increased rainfall and floods if data analysis by a Penn State meteorologist and long-term projections by a fisheries biologist, with a specialty in surface water pollution, are accurate.
      Paul Knight, senior lecturer in meteorology at Penn State, compiled rainfall data for Pennsylvania from 1895—when recordings were first made—to this year. He says there has been an increase of 10 percent of rainfall during the past century. Until the 1970s, the average rainfall throughout the state was about 42 inches. Beginning in the 1970s, the average began creeping up. “By the 1990s, the increase was noticeable,” he says.  The three wettest years on record since 1895 were 2003, 2004, and 2011. The statewide average was 61.5 inches in 2011, the year of Tropical Storm Lee, which caused 18 deaths and about $1.6 billion in damage in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, and devastating flooding in New York and Pennsylvania, especially along the Susquehanna River basin.
      Dr. Harvey Katz, of Montoursville, Pa., extended Knight’s data analysis for five decades. Dr. Katz predicts an average annual rainfall of about 55 inches, about 13 inches more than the period of 1895 to 1975. The increased rainfall isn’t limited to Pennsylvania, but extends throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.
      Both Knight and Dr. Katz say floods will be more frequent. The industrialization and urbanization of America has led to more trees being cut down; the consequences are greater erosion and more open areas to allow rainwater to flow into streams and rivers. Waterway hazards, because of flooding and increased river flow, will cause additional problems. Heavy rains will cause increased pollution, washing off fertilizer on farmlands into the surface water supply, extending into the Chesapeake Bay. Sprays on plants and agricultural crops to reduce attacks by numerous insects, which would normally stay localized, will now be washed into streams and rivers, says Knight.
      Pollution will also disrupt the aquatic ecosystem, likely leading to a decrease in the fishing industry because of increased disease and death among fish and other marine mammals, says Dr. Katz.
      Another consequence of increased rainfall is a wider spread of pollution from fracking operations, especially in the Marcellus Shale.
      Most of the 1,000 chemicals that can be used in drilling operations, in the concentrations used, are toxic carcinogens; because of various geological factors, each company using horizontal fracturing can use a mixture of dozens of those chemicals at any one well site to drill as much as two miles deep into the earth.
    Last year, drilling companies created more than 300 billion gallons of flowback from fracking operations in the United States. (Each well requires an average of 3–5 million gallons of water, up to 100,000 gallons of chemicals, and as much as 10 tons of silica sand. Flowback is what is brought up after the initial destruction of the shale.) Most of that flowback, which once was placed in open air pits lined with plastic that can tear and leak, are now primarily placed into 22,000 gallon steel trailers, which can leak. In Pennsylvania, drillers are still allowed to mix up to 10 percent of the volume of large freshwater pits with flowback water.
    In March 2013, Carizo Oil and Gas was responsible for an accidental spill of 227,000 gallons of wastewater, leading to the evacuation of four homes in Wyoming County, Pa. Two months later, a malfunction at a well, also in Wyoming County, sent 9,000 gallons of flowback onto the farm and into the basement of a nearby resident.
    Rain, snow, and wind in the case of a spill can move that toxic soup into groundwater, streams, and rivers. In addition to any of dozens of toxic salts, metals, and dissolvable organic chemicals, flowback contains radioactive elements brought up from deep in the earth; among them are Uranium-238, Thorium-232, and radium, which decays into radon, one of the most radioactive and toxic gases. Radon is the second highest cause of lung cancer, after cigarettes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
    A U.S. Geological Survey analysis of well samples collected in Pennsylvania and New York between 2009 and 2011 revealed that 37 of the 52 samples had Radium-226 and Radium-228 levels that were 242 times higher than the standard for drinking water. One sample, from Tioga County, Pa., was 3,609 times the federal standard for safe drinking water, and 300 times the federal industrial standard.
    Radium-226, 200 times higher than acceptable background levels, was detected in Blacklick Creek, a 30-mile long tributary of the Conemaugh River near Johnstown, Pa. The radium, which had been embedded deep in the earth but was brought up in flowback waters, was part of a discharge from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, according to research published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.
    Increased rainfall also increases the probability of pollution from spills from the nation’s decaying pipeline systems. About half of all oil and gas pipelines are at least a half-century old. There were more than 6,000 spills from pipelines last year. Among those spills were almost 300,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil from a pipe in Arkansas, and 100,000 gallons of oil and other chemicals in Colorado.
    Increased truck and train traffic to move oil and gas from the drilling fields to refineries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts has led to increased accidents. Railroad accidents in the United States last year accounted for about 1.15 million gallons of spilled crude oil, more than all spills in the 40 years since the federal government began collecting data, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Many of the spills were in wetlands or into groundwater and streams.
      A primary reason for increased rainfall (as well as increases in hurricanes, tornadoes, ocean water rises, and other long-term weather phenomenon) is because of man-made climate change, the result of increased carbon dioxide from fossil fuel extraction and burning. It’s not a myth. It’s not a far-fetched liberal hoax invented by Al Gore. About 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agree we are experiencing climate change, and that the world is at a critical change; if the steady and predictable increase in climate change, which affects the protection of the ozone layer, is not reduced within two decades, it will not be reversible. Increased rainfall and pollution will be only a part of the global meltdown.
      [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and emeritus professor. He is a syndicated columnist, radio commentator, and the author of 20 books, the latest of which is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the effects of horizontal fracturing. He is a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor and multimedia writer-producer.]



Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Phillies Are Not Phigments of Imagination




by Walter Brasch

     Newspapers are often a “court of last resort” for our readers whose problems can’t be dealt with elsewhere.
      Thus, it was no great surprise to receive a letter from a young girl who was confused about the Philadelphia Phillies. In her short life, she had never seen the Phillies.
      Her little friends, so she wrote me, said that the Phillies were a figment of her imagination, a team that was made up so that there would be something to anchor the National League basement. She says she was told that sportswriters went along with it because they always wanted to write fiction and needed something to do between calls from irate Little League parents.
      Well, Virginia, your friends are wrong. They have been affected by the cynicism of reporters and the skepticism of a nation with no direction. They think nothing can be that bad unless it was made up. But, Virginia, the truth is that there are Phillies and, unfortunately, they are that bad. But, it wasn’t always that way.
       The first game ever played in the National League was played in 1876 in Philadelphia. Of course, the Philadelphia team didn’t last a season, but if it did, it would have been a great team. In 1883, the Phillies showed up and never left—even if it seems that way now and then. In fact, since 1900, the Phillies have earned six of the top 20 spots of the worst records of any baseball team. That may or may not be why the Phillies tried to disguise themselves under aliases—the Philadelphia Quakers (1883-1889) and the Philadelphia Blue Jays (1943-1949). The Quakers, of course, are a peaceful people who don’t believe in battle; blue jays can be vicious. Neither name helped the team.
       Your little friends may tell you the only reason the Philadelphia A’s and Connie Mack of the American League eventually left the City of Brotherly Love, whoich has the most rabid sports fans in the nation, was because they were tired of competing for tickets against a team that sold about as many tickets for losing as did the A’s for winning. But, you must believe that even in losing, the Phillies are real.
       Not believe in the Phillies? You might as well not believe in their seven league championships, in the Whiz Kids of’ ’50, or the great collapse of ’64 when they were leading the league by six games with just two weeks to go, and then finished in a tie for 2nd. Only a Philly could pull that off. You might as well not believe in the Phillies of ’80 who won the World Series, the only time in a century that happened. 
       Not believe in the Phillies? You’d have to not believe in Mike Schmidt, maybe the greatest third baseman ever; you’d have to forget Garry Maddox, the “secretary of de-fence” who covered the outfield better than snow in February. You’d have to give up believing in Ed Delahanty, the first Philly to enter the Hall of Fame, or Chuck Klein who entered the Hall with a .326 average and statistics that would choke even the Nielsen ratings.
       If there were no Phillies, there would have been no Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, who was sold because the owner needed the money. You’d not hear about Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts or Tug McGraw, no Richie Ashburn, Bob Boone or Del Ennis, no Larry Bowa, Granny Hamner, Jim Konstanty, or even “Puddin’ Head” Jones. Not believe in the Phillies? You might as well not believe in John Kruk, Darren Daulton, Mike Lieberthal, Jim Bunning, Curt Schilling, and Lenny Dykstra.
       If there were no Phillies, there’d be nowhere for Jimmy Foxx, Pete Rose, and Dale Murphy to have gone at the end of their careers.
       You’d have to forget about managers Dallas Green and Paul Owens. And, you’d have to not believe in Charlie Manuel, the manager with the most wins for the Phillies and who led the team in 2008—the year after it racked up its 10,000th loss in its history—to its second World Series title, only to be fired three years later.
       Not believe in the Phillies? You’d have to not believe that owners are poor judges of talent who can take great teams and trade them away, and then spend millions for a pitching staff that proved it could be competitive at the Little League World Series.
      Not believe in the Phillies? You’d have to suspend your disbelief that a beer and hotdog can cost $11.50, and the cheapest seat, with a view of—well, actually, nothing—is $20. 
      Your little friends with their little minds can’t comprehend the vastness of a team that is again about a decade or so out of 1st. In this great playing field of ours, we are but mere synthetic fibers on the Astroturf of life, unable to grasp the universe, let alone the origin of the Phanatic.
      Yes, Virginia, there really is a Phillies. It exists as certainly as injuries, dropped balls, and parking lot jams. No Phillies? Thank God it exists, and will exist forever. A decade from now they may even again win a championship, and continue to make glad the heart of frustrated fans everywhere.
      Somewhere, Virginia, the sun is shining bright. But, there is no joy in Citizens Bank Park, for the anemic Phillies have once again struck out.
      [Assisting on this column was Francis Church of the New York Sun. Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigative analysis of the economic, political, environmental, and health effects of fracking throughout the country.]