The second arctic blast in a month is pushing temperatures down into the negative double digits in parts of the country this week, threatening to rattle the bones of residents of even the heartiest Midwestern states.
In Wisconsin, temperatures hovered just below zero Tuesday. At about 10 am, the air temperature in Madison was minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of 22 below. In other parts of the country, those temperatures would bring many cities and towns to a grinding halt, but not in Wisconsin.
“It’s not too bad,” says Tod Prichard of Wisconsin Emergency Management, “though this morning was kind of chilly.” Chilly or not, Wisconsin schools were open Tuesday, as were state and local government offices.
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But even Wisconsinites were caught off guard earlier this month when the mercury plunged into the negative 20’s and 30’s.
“Unfortunately when we had that first cold snap come through, we had four deaths,” Mr. Prichard says. “As we get another batch coming our way we are trying to warn people ahead of time and we are working with the state health department to set up warming shelters for folks whose furnace goes out or lose power.”
So what can people do to withstand the icy blast?
Even before winter starts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that homeowners have their heating equipment and chimney’s inspected to ensure that they function properly and safely through the worst of the winter. FEMA recommends these checks be done every year.
Prichard recommends that residents keep their thermostat set to 67 degrees F, even overnight, especially for seniors and children who are more susceptible to cold. “These kind of stretches are not the time to save money,” he says. "During these cold snaps you really have to make sure that you are keeping a good solid temperature inside your home.”
Frigid temperatures can pose a threat to household pipes, especially in more temperate regions of the country where insulation is less common. But even insulated pipes can become compromised when temperatures dip below minus 15 F., Pritchard says.
Residents can wrap exposed pipes in blankets and newspaper to provide makeshift insulation. Keeping the tap open slightly will help prevent the pipes from bursting should the water freeze.
When heading outside, people should dress in layers and try to cover as much exposed skin as possible. When the wind chill drops to 20 below, frostbite can set in in just 20 to 30 minutes. At 30 below, exposed skin can develop frostbite in as little as five minutes, Prichard says. “This is no time to make a fashion statement,” Prichard says. “You’ve got to wear your big old ugly winter hat.”
Such temperatures can be equally dangerous for pets, says John Baillie, a Lake Elmo, Minn. veterinarian and president of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association. While most cats make the decision to stay indoors in extreme cold, dogs are more likely to venture outside. “If you’re getting cold in five minutes outside, so is your dog unless it’s running around,” he says.
Dogs can succumb to frostbite if left outside for an extended period of time. Kennel dogs that live outdoors year-round need a shelter from the wind that is small enough that their body heat keeps the space warm, he says.
In general, animals know how to keep themselves warm, Dr. Baillie says. Pets tend to find a way to communicate to their owners that they are ready to go inside, and stray and wild animals find somewhere to hole up and get out of the wind.
“Hospitals are treating people for frostbite all the time,” Baillie says. “I have not seen an animal patient this winter yet for frostbite. They’re really not very susceptible to it because they are smarter than we are.”
Subzero temperatures also take a toll on cars. Cold weather puts an additional load on the battery, reducing the amount of power it can produce, says Mike Calkins, a technical service manager for the AAA automotive club. “The best thing to do is to make sure that your whole car battery starting and charging systems are in top shape,” he says. AAA recommends that drivers have their car tested at the beginning of each winter if the battery is three or more years old.
“The way you can help out the electrical system is trying to keep the engine as warm as possible,” Mr. Calkins says. Drivers that do not have access to a garage can invest in block heaters or battery blankets to ensure that the car will be able to start in the morning.
AAA and FEMA both stress that drivers should pack an emergency preparedness kit in the back seat of the car in the event of a breakdown or accident. Such a kit should include a cell phone, blankets, warm clothing, a bit of food and water, sand or salt for traction, and extra gloves and towels to dry off after attempting to clear snow from around the car.
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An Ohio inmate was put to death Thursday using the untested drug cocktail that the state adopted as its new execution method, after running out of its usual execution drug earlier this year.
The inmate, Dennis McGuire, was the first prisoner to be executed in the United States using the new, lethal mix of two drugs. The execution followed a federal judge’s rejection of appeals from the inmate’s lawyers this week who said that the untried, controversial process could make the condemned suffocate.
The execution in southern Ohio took more than 15 minutes, during which Mr. McGuire appeared to gasp several times, his chest heaving, and made repeated snorting sounds, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution said. The reporter called it “one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999."
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McGuire was sentenced to death for the brutal rape and fatal stabbing of Joy Stewart, a pregnant woman in her early 20s, in Ohio’s Preble County in 1989. He admitted his guilt in a letter to Gov. John Kasich (R) last month.
Ohio’s decision to use an untried injection process in McGuire’s execution comes after the state’s announcement in October that it lacked sufficient quantities of its execution drug, pentobarbital, to carry out any of the 140 executions on its docket. Supplies of pentobarbital, used in lethal injections in 13 states, have been waning at death houses since the drug’s Danish manufacturer put a full stop to selling the drug to US prisons in 2011. The European Union, of which Denmark is a member, opposes America's practice of capital punishment.
The manufacturer’s announcement has sent US states fumbling for alternative lethal injection methods. Some states have reached out to compounding pharmacies, a little-regulated branch of the pharmaceutical market, and others have cobbled together their own lethal cocktails. The hunt for new drugs has furnished a tense debate on whether executions using these alternative, and often untested, processes violate an inmate’s constitutional right to be spared cruel and unusual punishment.
In a hearing last week on McGuire’s coming execution, an anesthesiologist hired by defense attorneys told the court that the drugs could subject McGuire to “air hunger,” in which he struggles but fails to take a breath.
“McGuire will experience the agony and terror of air hunger as he struggles to breathe for five minutes after [executioners] intravenously inject him with the execution drugs," the lawyers said in a Jan. 6 court filing.
The state’s anesthesiologist had disputed that McGuire would experience air hunger, but also said that he did not know “how many minutes it will take the inmate to stop breathing," since "there is no science to guide me on exactly how long this is going to take," CNN reported.
The state’s argument also rested on the contention that although the US Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment, it does not preclude subjecting inmates that have been sentenced to death to some degree of pain.
"You're not entitled to a pain-free execution," Thomas Madden, an assistant Ohio attorney general, told the court last week, according to the AP.
Federal judge Gregory Frost announced on Monday that he would not stop the execution, saying the evidence was insufficient to prove that McGuire would experience “severe pain.”
Pentobarbital, which is often used in the euthanasia of animals, is itself a controversial drug that anti-capital punishment advocates have said can produce extreme pain. It was introduced to death houses as a replacement to sodium thiopental, in 2011, after the Illinois-based producer of that drug refused to continue selling it to prisons, once the producer apparently became aware that it was used to put convicts to death.
Ohio's new lethal injection process uses two drugs: midazolam, a sedative; and hydromorphone, a painkiller.
McGuire was transferred to Ohio's death house on Wednesday and received a last meal of that included fried chicken, potato salad, butter pecan ice cream, and Coca-Cola, the AP said.
The Ohio inmate who was expected to be the first prisoner to be put to death with the new drug cocktail was Ronald Phillips. But he won an eight-month reprieve following a request to become an organ donor. The state is weighing his request during the reprieve. McGuire had tried but failed to obtain such a reprieve in the weeks before his execution, the AP reported.
The next execution in Ohio is scheduled for March 19. Ohio has executed a total of 391 inmates since 1803.
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A federal judge has set a June trial date for the three ex-students accused of obstructing investigations in the case against their college friend, alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The summer trial date is significantly earlier than the 2015 date two of the defendants’ attorneys had wanted.
The trial will begin on June 23. Lawyers for two of the friends, Dias Kadyrbayev and Robel Phillipos, had pushed for the trial to start next January; the attorneys representing Azamat Tazhayakov, the third friend, had asked for a date in mid-July.
“We have one chance, and it has to be done right,” said Robert Stahl, a lawyer for Mr. Kadyrbayev. Preparing for a June trial date would be a "herculean task."
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US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock concluded that delaying the trial past early summer would violate the defendants’ right to a speedy trial. He also said that the trial should be kept "focused," rejecting the defense attorneys' contention that more time is needed to thoroughly analyze piles of electronic material.
Kadyrbayev and Mr. Tazhayakov are accused of removing a laptop and a backpack containing fireworks from Mr. Tsarnaev's dorm room on April 18 after seeing news reports that identified their college friend as a suspect in the attacks three days earlier. Tsarnaev also sent a text to Kadyrbayev that said: “If yu want yu can go to my room and take what's there.”
Later that evening, Kadyrbayev put the backpack into a dumpster outside his apartment, authorities say. It took investigators two days of hunting in the New Bedford landfill to find the backpack, its contents intact. Phillipos is accused of lying to investigators when interviewed about the case. He told them that he had not seen anyone take the backpack out of the room, according to authorities.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, both Kazak citizens, are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. The charges carry possible prison sentences of up to 25 years, as well as deportation back to Kazakhstan. Phillipos, an American, could be sentenced to up to 16 years in prison for two counts of lying to investigators.
The decision comes two days after US District Court Judge George O’Toole Jr. agreed to give Tsarnaev’s defense team more time before deciding whether to request a change of location for the trial. The previous deadline had been Feb. 28; no new date was set.
The filing did not give a reason for the change of date, but the measure appeared to heed the defense’s contention that it should be given until after US Attorney General Eric Holder decides whether the government will seek the death penalty in the case.
Mr. Holder is expected to announce before the end of the month if the government will pursue a death sentence.
Tsarnaev is facing 30 federal charges in connection to the bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 15 as well as the murder of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer three days later. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
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Two former California police officers seen in a video beating a mentally ill homeless man unconscious during an arrest were acquitted Monday of killing him.
The Orange County jury’s verdict, after two days of deliberations, brought a close to a case that set off an emotional debate on a police officer’s right to use force and the special needs of people with psychiatric disorders. The case also fueled a nationwide conversation on how to train police to work with mentally ill suspects.
The decision upheld the defense’s argument that the two Fullerton police officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, had acted in line with their training and their professional right to use force when they beat Kelly Thomas, a homeless man diagnosed as a schizophrenic, during a police altercation on a summer night in 2011. It dealt a blow to the prosecution’s contention that the incident sets a precedent for allowing police to deal brutally with the mentally ill, putting a vulnerable population – prone to erratic behavior during arrest – at risk of the same fate as Mr. Thomas.
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Mr. Ramos was acquitted of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and Mr. Cicinelli was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. A third officer, Joseph Wolfe, was also accused of involuntary manslaughter, but the district attorney’s office said it would drop the charge against Mr. Wolfe, following the Monday verdicts.
Mr. Thomas, the father, has said that he hopes that the US Justice Department will file federal charges against the officers. The FBI has been pursuing its own investigation of the high-profile case.
On July 5, 2011, at 8:23 p.m., the Fullerton Police Department received a call reporting a “homeless” man – “disheveled and shirtless” – who was “looking in car windows and pulling on handles of parked cars” at a bus depot, according to the Orange Country District Attorney’s office. Six officers, Mr. Ramos and Mr. Cicinelli included, responded.
At first, all was calm. The officers ordered Thomas to sit on the curb and put his hands on his knees. He eventually complied but also appeared to be confused, at times vocally belligerent, the district attorney’s office said.
Then, in circumstances that will likely remain unclear, the altercation turned violent. The defense said that Thomas did not follow police orders to sit still; the prosecution said that Thomas did not understand and could not follow those orders.
What was clear was what followed, since it was recorded from start to finish on a 33-minute surveillance video that would later fuel public outrage and push the case to trial: Ramos put on latex gloves and then put his fists in Thomas’s face, saying, "see these fists?...They're getting ready to ---- you up." For nine minutes and 40 seconds, the six officers pummeled Thomas to the ground, with Ramos delivering volleys of punches and beating Thomas with his baton and Cicinelli tasing the homeless man twice in the face. In parts of the footage that particularly incited public anger, Thomas repeatedly cries out for his father to help him, as well as screams again and again “I’m sorry” and “please, I can’t breathe.”
The altercation left Thomas unconscious, and he did not regain consciousness after being transferred to a local hospital. He died five days later.
To the prosecution, and to protesters that rallied to Thomas’s cause during the trial, the video showed two police officers abusing their right to force against an unarmed man who “posed a low-level threat,” according to the district attorney’s office.
The defense said that cops must protect themselves when they believe they are in danger, without fear of prosecution for handling the incident with force.
On the whole, the defense argued that the two officers were acting in accordance with their training in how to control a tense situation.
"They did what they were trained to do," Mr. Barnett told the Los Angeles Times.
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School-imposed drug tests do little to deter marijuana use among teenagers, according to the authors of a new study on drug prevention. The overall tone of a school’s climate may play a bigger role in prevention than any punitive measures, they add.
Currently, 20 percent of private and public schools in the United States employ drug testing. Some reserve the tests for students suspected of abusing drugs while others require all students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities submit to a urine test.
The study published Monday in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs analyzes a variety of other studies on the issue. It concludes that “some universal school drug-prevention efforts, which aim to improve the knowledge and encourage students to ‘say no,’ have shown disappointing results; however, other approaches that provide social life-skill training have shown positive effects.”
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Life-skill training programs aim to prevent destructive behavior among students by establishing "good relations between teachers, students, and parents – the triad of communication,” says Dan Romer, the director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Public Policy in Philadelphia and a lead author of the study. Researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel were also involved.
Schools try to create a positive climate “by engaging students in the decisionmaking that goes on in the school, making sure that they feel a part of it, and that if discipline is needed that it’s done in a way that’s not arbitrary but is explained,” Dr. Romer adds.
That is not to say that fostering a positive school climate and implementing drug testing are mutually exclusive.
“There are schools where students feel it is a good climate and that they do test, so it’s probably a function of how it’s done,” Romer says.
The addition of drug testing in schools known to have a good climate does seem to lead to a reduction in drug use among girls, Romer found. But drug testing did not seem to have any impact on boys’ behavior, regardless of the school climate.
Others suggest that the way in which drug testing is done is key. Schools that rely on drug tests should use them as a part of a larger, health-based prevention effort rather than as punitive tool, says Desirae Vasquez, director of program services for Freedom from Chemical Dependency in Newton, Mass., which helps schools implement drug tests.
Communication among parents, students, and administrators can go a long way toward making a policy effective, she adds.
“We don’t endorse or oppose random drug testing,” Ms. Vasquez says. “We help schools define their own effective drug prevention climate for themselves.”
But Romer argues that any drug testing program, no matter how well intentioned, can backfire.
One study Romer examined found that implementing drug tests actually led to an increase in illicit drug use. That’s a particularly troubling finding, considering the added risk of overdose associated with many illicit drugs.
In addition to potentially driving users to more dangerous substances, Romer worries about other unintended consequences of drug testing.
“First there’s the whole issue of not trusting people and assuming that everyone is guilty,” Romer says. “Then there are false positives – no test is perfect. And third, there is an issue of privacy. People will know if kids are removed from activities and there could be a stigma attached to that.”
Under federal law, public schools can only require students who participate in extracurricular activities to submit to random drug tests. In general, such participation is associated with a reduced level of drug use. One common consequence of a positive drug test is to remove the student from those extracurricular activities. Romer worries that this response is counterintuitive.
“By throwing them out of those activities, you are actually increasing the risk,” he says.
Vasquez maintains that these and other concerns can be addressed through conscientious planning and implementation and effective communication between parents, students, and faculty.
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Virgin Galactic’s would-be commercial spaceship has made its third rocket-powered, supersonic test flight, surpassing its previous height milestones and edging closer to its ambitions of boosting extremely well-paying customers into space.
SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s supersonic spaceship, reached about 71,000 feet in its latest test flight on Friday, about 2,000 feet higher than its previous test flight in September.
It was the first time that Virgin Galactic pilot Dave Mackay commanded the plane in a rocket-powered flight, joining a test pilot from Scaled Composites, the company that develops Virgin Galactic’s spaceships. Scaled Composites test pilots had flown SpaceShipTwo’s previous rocket test flights.
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SpaceShipTwo lifted off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port under a WhiteKightTwo carrier jet at 7:22 a.m. local time. At around 46,000 feet, the spaceship was dropped from the carrier, ignited its engines, and burst to Mach 1.4. The rocket burn that carried the craft to 71,000 feet, near the middle of the Earth’s stratosphere, lasted just 20 seconds.
The test flight cleared the latest hurdle in British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s race to make his company the world’s first space tourism outlet. The venture’s planned commercial start date is August 2014.
“I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights," said Sir Richard, adding, "2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space."
So far, Virgin Galactic has sold tickets at $250,000 a pop to Katy Perry, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and some 530 other buyers into what the company calls “perhaps the world’s most exclusive club.” NBC is on board to broadcast the company’s first official flight, on which Sir Richard and his two adult children have said they will be passengers, as well as to produce a space-themed reality show that gifts the winner a ride on SpaceShipTwo.
Champagne bottles have been clicked on SpaceShipTwo’s nose, Lady Gaga has said, though an anonymous source, that she’ll sing – at dawn, no less – inside the spaceship at maximum altitude sometime in 2015, and glossy promotional videos have drummed up excitement for what the company calls “the journey of a lifetime” and, simply, “the dream.”
Still, Virgin Galactic remains far from – specifically, 296,442 feet from – putting customers in bona fide space. The World Air Sports Federation defines space as beginning at what is called the Kármán line, 62 miles above Earth, and Virgin Galactic, working in tandem with Scaled Composites, has said that it is climbing toward that goal in a series of a test flights that each time aim higher and higher.
Scaled Composites has achieved those height goals before. SpaceShipTwo’s predecessor, SpaceShipOne, surpassed the Kármán line in 2004, soaring to 367,442 feet, or 69.6 miles, a feat for which it won its developer the $10 million Ansari X Prize that year. SpaceShipOne, though, was too small for the commercial market, with seating for just two passengers and one pilot. SpaceShipTwo accommodates six passengers and two pilots – plus, all passengers get their own pair of windows, out of which it will be possible to see the curvature of the Earth.
For at least one other space tourism outlet, though, the Kármán line is just inconvenient semantics. In October, a new commercial space venture, called World View, announced that it was swooshing into the high-flying tourism market with a business plan that puts a $75,000 price tag on a balloon-ride to the middle of the stratosphere, or about 19 miles above Earth. World View has scooted around the Kármán line problem by offering the “space environment" experience, not actual space.
World View has also billed its rides, in which customers will be buoyed upward in a capsule tethered to a giant parachute, as a more bucolic semi-space experience relative to Virgin Galactic's promises of supersonic speeds and zero gravity periods.
Both World View and Virgin Galactic will hub at the $209 million Spaceport America, a desert-girdled spaceport near Truth or Consequences, N.M., and the first spaceport to ever be built explicitly for commercial purposes.
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“We see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) told reporters Sunday.
The West Virginia American Water Co. continued testing local drinking water throughout the weekend for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical compound used to clean coal, which seeped from a holding tank at Freedom Industries into the Elk River on Thursday, contaminating local drinking water.
Officials have been waiting for concentrations to dissipate below 1 part per million before allowing residents to resume using the water for anything other than flushing. While weekend testing indicated that the concentration in four testing locations has dropped to a safe level, officials plan to continue testing throughout the distribution area Monday before giving residents the all clear.
The utility is expected to lift the ban gradually and will notify residents directly as the status for their zone changes. A website will be set up to help residents determine what zone they live in.
Residents will be instructed to flush potentially contaminated water from their pipes, hot water tanks, and the icemakers in their refrigerators.
“What we are trying to stress is that, as the plan unfolds, it is very important for people to adhere to that plan,” says Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
“Unless the utility explicitly told them directly to start a procedure of flushing their household, they are not to proceed until they get those instructions,” Mr. Messina says. “It is very important that people do not jump the gun so this process can go as smoothly as practically possible.”
The incident first came to light on Thursday morning when residents alerted authorities that their tap water had an unusual, licorice-like smell. The contaminant was traced to a leaky 40,000-gallon holding tank maintained by Freedom Industries, which stores and supplies chemicals to the local coal industry. As much as 7,500 gallons of the substance is believed to have leaked from the tank, breached a secondary containment area, and entered the Elk River upstream from the local water treatment facility.
Questions have emerged about just how long the company may have been aware of the leak.
"There's no question that they should have called earlier," said West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman.
Because the facility does not produce or manufacture chemicals, it does not fall under regulation by the State Department of Environmental Protection.
“At this time, we do not know of any entity, state or federal, that would regulate this facility,” Messina says.
“We will continue, as we get people back on their feet, to investigate what happened, when it happened, and what we need to do to do the job better,” Governor Tomblin told reporters.
The compound is not considered toxic enough to be designated a hazardous material for transportation purposes.
While the chemical is not deadly to humans, even at full concentration, little is known about potential smaller, chronic health effects associated with exposure.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TCSA) of 1976 grants the Environmental Protection Agency the ability to regulate and require testing of toxic chemicals, but the majority of new compounds make it to market without rigorous testing, says Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Andy Igrejas, the director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an advocacy coalition in Washington, sees this incident as an illustration of EPA's impotence under TSCA. "If we had a functioning system, then we would know a lot more about the chemical" and would have a plan in place in case of rupture and release into the environment, he says.
The Department of Health and Human Resources advised residents that may have come into contact with contaminated water and are suffering from symptoms to contact local poison control. So far, 10 people have been admitted to area hospitals, but none are considered to be in serious condition, said West Virginia Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling.
While it will likely be a while before the area returns to normal, some businesses, including restaurants, in the area have been able to open conditionally.
“While we await word from West Virginia American Water Co. about when to proceed, the National Guard continues to bring in water to these counties,” Messina says. “We believe that retailers have been able to keep stock of water and other items. The situation is as good as can be expected.”
Four days after a chemical spill polluted the Elk River in West Virginia, some 300,000 people in nine counties remain without water for drinking, washing, and cooking.
Several dozen people have sought treatment for nausea, rashes, and other symptoms at local hospitals. Businesses and schools remain closed. And state and federal authorities are investigating the cause and continuing impact of the estimated 7,500-gallon spill of the industrial chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.
Officials say it’s likely to be days before public water supplies are declared safe enough for anything other than flushing toilets or firefighting.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has declared a state of emergency for the nine counties, which includes the state capital of Charleston, the state's largest city. President Obama has issued an emergency declaration.
With help from the West Virginia Army National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent 75 tractor trailers full of bottled water to the area impacted by the spill.
"As of Saturday, FEMA has delivered approximately 1 million liters of water from its distribution centers in Cumberland and Frederick, Maryland, to the area for use by the state," the agency said. "FEMA will continue to deliver supplies to the state for distribution, as needed."
Once the spill was detected and contained, it became a matter of time before the chemical in the river became diluted and was flushed downstream. Once the chemical level meets the 1 part per million requirement set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, authorities will begin lifting the ban on tap water.
Hardest hit have been restaurants and other businesses serving local residents and visitors to the Charleston area.
"What we're working on is a plan to be able to allow businesses to present plans for potable water," Dr. Rahul Gupta, the health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told Reuters.
"We'll review those plans and after we verify, we'll reopen businesses on a case-by-case basis. We have begun that process already.”
The chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (Crude MCHM), which is used to clean impurities from coal, is toxic but not considered lethal to humans. On Thursday, the spill was discovered from a leaky 40,000-gallon tank owned by the Freedom Industries company.
Before being discovered by Freedom Industries employees, the spill leaked beyond a containment area surrounding the tank, flowing into the Elk River about a mile upstream of the area’s water treatment plant.
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that Freedom Industries informed state authorities last year that it was storing 10 industrial chemicals on the site, including the contaminant that leaked, according to a document released Saturday.
“Companies with hazardous chemicals on their properties are required by federal law to disclose a list annually to state and local emergency planning authorities,” according to this report. “It wasn't clear, however, what was done with the information or whether the company that runs the water-treatment plant affected by the spill, West Virginia American Water Co., was aware of the document. The company said it was caught off guard when MCHM, which is used in coal preparation, appeared in the water supply on Thursday.”
Fred Millar, a longtime chemical industry watchdog in Washington, said the lack of better planning was an example of how the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act hasn't been properly enforced around the country, the Gazette-Mail in Charleston reported Saturday.
"Obviously, the whole idea of the chemical inventory reports is to properly inform local emergency officials about the sorts of materials they might have to deal with," Millar said. "It's just head-in-the-sand to be ignoring this type of threat."
Meanwhile, advises the water company, aside from toilet flushing and firefighting, alternative sources of water should be used for all purposes. Bottled water or water from another, safe source should be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, bathing, food and baby formula preparation and all other purposes until further notice.
The chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., that contaminated the Elk River and left 300,000 residents without access to water raises new questions about the regulation of chemicals used in coal processing.
The compound in question, Crude MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol), is a chemical foam used to wash coal and remove impurities that contribute to pollution during combustion. Eastman Chemical Co., the manufacturer, has identified the compound as a skin irritant that could be potentially harmful if ingested.
However, the West Virginia American Water Co., the utility that supplies the affected area, was concerned enough about the public health effects of the chemical to insist that residents refrain from using tap water to bathe in or even wash clothing.
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In actuality, little is known about the human health effects of MCHM. While Eastman has produced a material safety data sheet (MSDS), as is legally required for all chemical compounds used in industry under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, much of the information appears to be incomplete.
“There are so many aspects of this chemical that there is no information about, including its general toxicity,” says Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “They don’t have any information on human health effects.”
The MSDS provides the dosage required to kill rats, but those figures have not been extrapolated to suggest what a harmful dose to humans might be or what the effects might be if it is introduced into an ecosystem, Dr. Krimsky says.
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate and restrict the use of chemical substances. Under TSCA, when a company creates a new chemical, the EPA has 90 days to review it and tell the company how it will be regulated before the company can use it. However, the EPA is not typically able to properly assess new compounds within that time frame. Once that 90-day window has passed, companies are free to use the substance.
Environmental advocates and legislators have been pushing for revision of the TSCA for several years in hopes of correcting this loophole, but Congress has yet to pass new legislation.
“TSCA is outdated legislation,” Krimsky says. “The way it has worked is when a chemical causes harm, that’s when the EPA will start engaging in taking actions.”
“The way TSCA was developed, it’s mostly a reporting mechanism. Industry uses its own information even if it’s no information when they are reporting to the EPA that they have this chemical,” Krimsky also says. “Depending upon EPA staffing and how much time they have, they can review these things. But if they don’t, then they’ll take a very cursory look at it, and they will let it through. That’s why we see many, many chemicals in this system that don’t have adequate toxicological information.”
As little is understood about how exposure to MCHM affects humans, even less is known about the ecological impacts. Eastman maintains that when diluted, the chemical will not have adverse effects on the aquatic environment, a spokeswoman stated in an e-mail.
However, MCHM does not readily dissolve in water, says Lance Lin, a civil and environmental engineering professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “This particular chemical is lighter than water. It is only slightly soluble in water, meaning it’s pretty much going to float on top of the river.”
Environmental advocates see this incident as one more tax on the Elk River levied by the coal industry.
“This spill pulls the curtain back on the coal industry's widespread and risky use of dangerous chemicals, and is an important reminder that coal-related pollution poses a serious danger to nearby communities,” the Sierra Club said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Americans, and the people of West Virginia, deserve greater accountability and transparency about coal industry practices.”
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The Indian diplomat at the center of a diplomatic feud between the US and India boarded a plane back to New Delhi Thursday evening, after the US formally indicted her on charges of visa fraud, Indian officials said on Friday. Her departure, arranged through an agreement between Indian and US officials, appeared to be an effort by both countries to settle a spat that has rankled bilateral relations, though each continues to maintain that it is in the right.
Devyani Khobradage, a consular officer, was arrested Dec. 12 in New York on charges of filing a US visa application for her housekeeper, Sangeet Richard, that falsely claimed intentions to pay the woman wages in accordance with US labor laws. Ms. Khobradage's arrest, in which she was strip-searched and held in a cell with what the Indian press called drug addicts, sparked ire in India that unfurled into massive street protests and reverberated in retaliatory measures by India against US diplomats.
The incident soon evolved into a battle for the moral high ground, as the US pulled away from Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial expressions of “regret” and indicated that it would not drop its allegations against India’s diplomat. On Thursday, US Attorney Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, announced that Khobradage would be indicted on charges of visa fraud and making false statements – a sign that efforts to arrange a plea bargain had come to nothing.
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It is uncertain whether Khobradage will ever be prosecuted. On Wednesday, the US State Department heeded India’s request to grant Khobradage full diplomatic immunities – a status that would shield her from prosecution and required upgrading her rank. The US then asked India to waive her immunity so the indictment could be pursued, but India declined. At that point, the US asked that Khobradage return to India. The Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it will transfer Khobradage to a position at its New Delhi office.
Khobradage can now be prosecuted only if she returns to the US without the diplomatic immunity the US has granted her. Her American husband and children still live in the US, suggesting that the battle might not be over.
The US decision to give Khobradage diplomatic privileges, and India’s decision to pull her from the country, seems to be a tacit effort to put a stop, at least temporarily, to the deterioration of US-India relations during the past, bitter month. The effect is a stalemate in which neither country admits wrongdoing, but in which Khobradage does not face immediate prosecution.
Khobragade is accused of submitting an employment form to the US Embassy in India that listed wages for her housekeeper, Ms. Richards, at $9.75 per hour – a sum that complies with New York State labor laws. But the agreement Khobragade gave to her housekeeper, and did not submit to US authorities, offered wages of just $6,876 per year, or about $1.42 per hour, given that Richards worked between 94 and 104 hours a week. The Embassy processed a visa for Richards on the basis of that falsified employment form, according to the indictment.
In June 2013, after Khobradage allegedly declined Richards' repeated requests to end her employment and to have her passport returned, Richards fled her employer's home for Safe Horizon, a nonprofit group that represents victims of human trafficking. One of Khobradage’s relatives is alleged to have made repeated calls to Richards’ husband in India, in hopes that the calls would “intimidate” Richards into returning to India without going to the US authorities with her story, the indictment alleges. Khobradage was subsequently arrested in December.
On Thursday, Indian officials continued to assert that the diplomat had done nothing wrong and insisted that the US had committed the more egregious act by detaining her.
“The worst that can be said about her is that she did not comply with the amounts that was supposed to be paid under your [US] law,” Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid of India told The New York Times. “I don’t think that justifies treating her like a common criminal.”
He asked that the charges against Khobragade be dropped, alleging that there was no “legitimate legal ground for pursuing this case,” echoing national sentiment that Khobradge’s alleged crime is a negligible one, at least under Indian custom.
But US prosecutors also held firm to their position. In a letter to US District Judge Shira Scheindlin on Thursday, Mr. Bharara wrote that “the charges will remain pending” until Khobradage returns to the US without diplomatic privileges.
“We will alert the court promptly if we learn that the defendant returns to the United States in a nonimmune capacity, at which time the government will proceed to prosecute this case and prove the charges in the indictment,” the federal prosecutor wrote.
In a statement released by Safe Horizons on Friday, Richards expressed gratitude for the indictment.
“I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did – you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you,” she said.
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