andrew schneider investigates

June 14, 2009

Tweeting the revolution

Filed under: Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 14:05

I’ve been doing journalism for decades, several of them. I covered my first two or three wars with the keys of a battered portable typewriter.

It never crasked but the spell-checker is lousy

It never crashed but the spell-checker is lousy

I not only understand change, I covet the ability to get our words out instantly and to a world-wide audience that most journalists never dreamed of reaching a few years ago.

This morning, I saw something in the news that hammered home how deeply cyber communications have permeated our cells.

For centuries, governments and ruling powers have tried to control how much their citizens knew about the news of the day, especially during battles, coups d’état, revolutions, uprisings and episodes of political upheaval. I have watched this, some times far too closely, in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East and twice in Africa.

The first rule was always to seize and close the newspapers, then silence the radio stations and, in later years, stifle the television broadcasts. This was always pretty easy because those with the guns and machetes knew where the offices were.

Today, gagging dissemination of news and comment is far more complex.

Just read the following two sentences from an Associated Press dispatch from Tehran on crowds taking to the streets protesting yesterday’s vote and claiming that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen the presidential election.

Deep into the AP story the reporter wrote:

“Authorities pushed back with ominous measures apparently seeking to undercut liberal voices: jamming text messages, blocking pro-Mousavi Web sites and Facebook and cutting off mobile phones in Tehran.

“With the Internet and mobile texting down, some Iranians turned to Twitter to voice their views.”

The government made getting the word out more difficult, but they failed to stop it. Cyberspace over Iran is very much alive with what people think.

April 2, 2009

Japanese scientists have figured out that chicken soup may be the secret to controlling high blood pressure.

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 08:23

Of course we all know that chicken soup – “Grandma’s Penicillin” – is good for curing much of what ails you. Some of us have passed the secret of this liquid medical wonder on for generations without really knowing from where its medicinal value comes.

My great grandmother would add several cloves of garlic to boost the healing power of her deep yellow brew.

Over the years, the chicken soup has been proven to have antibacterial and antiviral properties and boosts the immune system. In the 1990s, a physician from the University of Nebraska brought his wife’s chicken soup into the laboratory, tested it with white blood cells and showed that there were naturally occurring chemicals which could clear stuffy nose by stopping inflammation of the cells in the nasal passages.

In today’s edition of the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Japanese scientists document more important benefits.

Chicken soup with matzo ball from New York City;s 2nd Ave. Deli     photo by A.Schneider

Chicken soup with matzo ball from New York City;s 2nd Ave. Deli photo by A.Schneider

Dr. Ai Saiga and his colleagues report that the popular home remedy for the common cold may have a new role in fighting high blood pressure.

They found that the key ingredient might be the chicken’s legs and feet. The journal confirms what those of us who watched our grandmothers cook already new. The yellow feet were a key ingredient for flavor, but today, in the U.S., they are often discarded as waste. But elsewhere, cooks wouldn’t consider cooking a chicken soup without adding the feet as key ingredients.

In their testing, Saiga and his team extracted collagen from chicken legs and tested its ability to act as an ACE inhibitor – a vasodilator used in the treatment of hypertension and heart failure by causing the arteries to widen.

According to the journal, the scientists identified four different proteins in the collagen mixture with high ACE-inhibitory activity. And, when given to rats used to model human high blood pressure, the proteins produced a significant and prolonged decrease in blood pressure.

The Japanese team did not evaluate whether the addition of matzo balls increased the soup’s therapeutic value. However, since chicken soup with matzo balls is a staple served at the Jewish holiday of Passover (which begins April 8) home scientists may have the opportunity to do their own testing – or is that tasting?

Here’s a link to the journal article.

March 28, 2009

I’m from the government and I’ll never lie to you. Happy 30th birthday – TMI

Filed under: Government & corporate wrong-doing,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 16:01

Thirty years ago today, on March 28, 1979, at 10:55 a.m, some 6 hours and 55 minutes after the sudden shut down of the TMI-2 reactor, Pennsylvania Lt. Governor William Scranton issued this statement: “The Metropolitan Edison Company has informed us that there has been an incident at Three Mile Island, Unit #2.  Everything is under control.  There is and was no danger to public health and safety.”

That was a lie.

At least 30 percent of the reactor’s core had melted and slumped to the bottom of the  the reactor pressure vessel.  That the vessel didn’t rupture was a lucky turn of events because,  had it ruptured, the core would have dropped to the floor of the reactor building, creating conditions where there could be no assurance that  a catastrophic radioactivity release could be prevented.

Three days after the accident began NRC officials were debating the likelihood  of  this worst case scenario; some believed disaster was in the offing and others argued that the danger had passed.   I reported that fact for The Associated Press and was promptly denounced as fabricator and a fool by Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, Dick Thornburg.

Three Mile island photo courtesy Blain Roberts

Three Mile island photo courtesy Blain Roberts

Notwithstanding ensuing multiple investigations by a presidential commission, government agencies and congressional committees, much remains unknown about critical events associated with the accident.  One thing though is clear:  During the early hours of the accident a catastrophe was a lot closer than was known by government regulators or the public.  And by the time the regulators had before them the information indicating the nature of what had happened, the danger had largely passed, even though, at the time, the experts disagreed on whether this was so.

For those of you who weren’t born yet, or who slept through those frightening  days in late March  weeks in March and April, here is a link to today’s edition of the Casco Bay Observer.

Don’t let its pastoral name fool you. The newsletter  is written by Dr.  Henry Myers, a physicist with degrees from MIT and Caltech, who was the chief scientist for former Rep. Mo Udall’s ball-busting investigative committee that watched over the NRC and other issues that glowed in the dark.  Henry was there for it all and if you care about truth in government, read what he has to say

Casco Bay Observer

March 28,  2009

TMI + 30

On Wednesday, March 28, 1979 at 10:55 a.m, some 6 hours and 55 minutes after the sudden shut down of the TMI-2 reactor,  Pennsylvania Lt. Governor William Scranton issued this statement:

The Metropolitan Edison Company has informed us that there has been an incident at Three Mile Island, Unit #2.  Everything is under control.  There is and was no danger to public health and safety.

The incident occurred due to a malfunction in the turbine system.  There was a small release of radiation to the environment.

All safety systems functioned properly. …

On Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. Lt Governor Scranton issued an update:

Begin indent, begin different font

The situation is more complex than the company first led us to believe.  We are taking more tests, and at this point, we believe there is still no danger to public health.

Metropolitan Edison has given you and us conflicting information. ….

On Thursday, March 29,  unaware of data indicating melting of the core,  the NRC chairman  assured anxious and skeptical members of the House of Representatives Interior Committee that there had been no melting of fuel.  He estimated that there has been a small amount of fuel damage ( “perhaps about one percent of the fuel in the core” ) in the form of cracks in the  tubes that contained the uranium pellets.  (On May 9, 1979, Victor Stello, then chief of the NRC’s Division of Operating Reactors, told congressional investigators, that with respect to the NRC’s March 28 and March 29 reports on percentage of fuel damage, “I do not know why anybody would be guessing at the percent of failed fuel.”)

On Friday, March 30,  the NRC commissioners learned that the accident had been much more severe than they had previously believed.    NRC staff told the commissioners that the staff  had that morning  learned of evidence that at about 1:50 p.m on Wednesday  a hydrogen explosion had occurred in the TMI-2 reactor building.  The report of an explosion plus data indicating a continuing presence of hydrogen in the pressure vessel pointed to severe core damage and the possibility of further explosions that might lead to a large off-site release of radioactivity.  Talk then centered on the situation being one that safety systems “never had been designed to accommodate, and …. the best estimate (is that it is) deteriorating slowly, and the most pessimistic estimate is (that it is) on the threshold of turning bad.”   There then followed  indeterminate discussion of whether  the state’s evacuation plan should be executed.

On Saturday, March 31, Commission concern focussed on the likelihood of disaster.  Late in the day, the perception of danger peaked.   By mid-day Sunday,  April 1, a consensus had developed that  a catastrophe was not in the offing and  that it was safe for President Carter to tour  the control room.     Meanwhile,  controlled radioactivity releases from the plant, words of caution from Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh,  press reports rooted in the NRC commissioners’ discussions,  and rumors of explosions and meltdowns caused a major exodus from the TMI/Harrisburg area.

The accident triggered numerous investigations including several by the NRC, by a presidential commission, by disparate congressional committees and by journalists and book writers.  Some of the latter, including one by the NRC’s designated  historian, were off the wall.  Notwithstanding that the extensive scrutiny left critical questions dangling, the inquiries in toto did reveal a particularly noteworthy aspect of the  matter:  there had occurred a significant number of episodes that beforehand would have been deemed by the nuclear industry and NRC regulators  not credible,  the stuff of anti-nuclear hype.

Among  a-priori implausible events was the failure of the NRC to respond to warnings that operators would be confused by  a malfunction like that which set the stage for disaster at TMI-2.  One such event was at the Davis-Besse reactor that began as did the March 28 TMI accident.  Another was a safety analysis by a TVA engineer of a TMI-like reactor being purchased by TVA.   Had these precursors been addressed, the TMI-2 operators would probably have realized that water was flowing out of the reactor pressure vessel through a stuck open valve and they would have known what to do to stop the flow and to restore cooling prior to the occurrence of fuel damage.

Prior to the TMI accident, plant workers falsified leak rate calculations; this  resulted in the failure to repair a leaking valve which later played a primary role in causing the accident and the operators’ failure to perceive what was happening.

For the accident’s first 2  hours and 18 minutes,  the operators did not recognize that water was flowing from the pressure vessel through the previously leaking but now stuck open valve,  leaving the highly radioactive reactor core inadequately cooled.   At approximately 6:20 a.m., an arriving shift supervisor perceived the problem; he instructed an operator to close another valve near the one that was stuck open.   This stopped the flow of water from the reactor.  But it was too late. Before cooling was restored,  fuel temperatures rose to the melting uranium oxide point.  A  substantial portion of  the 100 tone reactor core had liquefied and slumped into the bottom of the pressure vessel which fortunately maintained its integrity.

While the greatest danger existed during the accident’s first hours on March 28, it was, as noted above, not until March 30 that NRC Commissioners learned that the event was much more serious than they had previously believed.  In days, weeks and months following the accident,  information emerged indicating that on March 28 control room instruments and other data indicated that the fuel had been severely damaged, a situation that TMI’s managers were required to report immediately to the NRC.  Instead of  passing on this data to State and Federal officials,  however, plant managers  made misleading statements, creating the impression that the accident was substantially less severe and the situation more under control that what the managers themselves believed and what was in fact the case.  While the failure to report accurately was a clear and serious violation of  then existing NRC regulations, the NRC staff took no action against the responsible managers, dismissing and obfuscating the matter with Alice-in-Wonderland distinctions  between “knowing” and “willful” withholding of information.

For those who see TMI as a demonstration of the great safety built into the nuclear technology, there is another way of looking at the story.   Had the cards fallen more favorably,  the fact of a stuck open valve would have been recognized and dealt with early on and the event  would have gone virtually unnoticed by the press and public at large.  On the other hand, had the cards  fallen less favorably (with another hour or two, in addition to the 2+ that  passed prior to a manager noting that fluid was flowing from the reactor through the stuck open valve), the core would have fallen through the pressure vessel into the reactor building which was not designed to keep radioactivity from escaping into the plant’s surroundings.  It is anyone’s guess as to whether in such circumstances there would have been a massive release of radioactivity with consequences of a kind that the industry and NRC contended had a probability of occurrence that was on the order of that of meteor strikes.

March 1, 2009

WR Grace lawyers bring their own stimulus package to Montana but are disappointed at finding no snake skin boots

Missoula, Mont., has more than its share of great eateries. The absolute best burger in the world comes off the tiny grill at the scruffy Missoula Club, or a breakfast of brains and eggs and other memorable fare at Oxford Saloon and Café. This town has a surprising list of high end restaurants that match and even exceed the quality and variety of food purveyors on both coasts where many their of new customers come from.

The pin–strip-suited army of W.R. Grace lawyers, paralegals and assistants are expected to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy over the next fours months as they ply their trade in the federal courthouse. Grace and the five former top executives on trial in the nation’s largest-ever environmental crime trial will get stuck with the tab for the classy restaurants, hotel suites and condo.

The “Briefcase Brigade,” as Matthew Frank of the Missoula Independent calls them, are being paid between $200 or $1,000 or more an hour. That’s not just courtroom time and it appears that many of the visiting Easterners are spending some of those bucks looking for a bit of Western motif to adopt.Picture

Yesterday, I was shopping for an extension cord for my computer at a hardware and farm store near my motel. Inside Quality Supply, I spotted two members of the Grace legal team I sat across the courtroom from for days, and a woman wearing a dress. Probably the only one in the store thus attired . Not having a notebook, this is what I recall.

One guy asked a young salesclerk where the snakeskin boots were.

“Snake boots? Right down there,” she said, pointing to shelves of heavy rubber boots used to clean out barns and corrals.

“No, No. Cowboy boots covered in snake skin. And what is mucking anyhow,” the other lawyer asked, pointing to the aisle they’d just left.

“We have lots of boots,” she said, herding them towards the side of the store. “Leather, brown, black, fancy tooling, but no snake skin. Why would you want that anyhow?”

There was a time not too long ago that several stores in or near downtown Missoula stocked the very fancy and exotic boots, including several different snake skin. Not so much anymore, some storekeepers told me.Picture

I peaked through the shelves and watched as the barristers squeezed and grunted their tender feet into five or six different pair of boots.

“These hurt like hell,” said one of the guys. “No wonder cowboys ride horses all the time.”

I burst out laughing and blew my cover.

“Molloy has a gag order about talking to the press. He’ll have our butts if we talk to you,” said the other guy. I assured them that I wasn’t talking, just watching.

A few minutes later the same guy held up the bright turquoise and red shirt with pearl snaps, more often seen worn by line dancers in banged up bars and asked his colleague whether wearing it would win over the jury.

About 20 minutes later, they checked out. One pair of boots, that the young woman bought, eight or nine assorted Wrangler and Carhartt shirts and a tan “Stallion” Stetson.

Looked to be about $650 worth.

As we were all leaving, one said, “Check out the moose store on main street. It’s great.”

Moosecreek Mercantile owner Gary Brikett says his hottest items are the huckleberry candies and jams and the make-believe deer, elk, ram and bear heads. They’re completely suitable for mounting over a gas fireplace in some east coast condo.

If Molloy would have let me, I might have warned the representatives of the nation’s largest law firms to watch their pennies. Newspapers are not the only industry having financial troubles. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Latham & Watkins, one of the world’s largest law firms, fired hundreds of lawyers and associates yesterday.

Wash those shirts gently and watch the pearl snaps.

February 18, 2009

Nuke cops want a tally of missing radioactive EXIT signs.

Here’s something else to worry about.

It seems the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has become a bit concerned about the security or, at least the location of, hundreds of thousands of glow-in-the-dark exit signs that are being used throughout the country.

This week, the NRC sent a notice to 61 corporations and organizations possessing 500 or more of the signs � ranging from Boeing to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City to Wal-Mart stores. They were asked to determine where their exit signs are and to report any that are lost or missing to the government.

The signs contain the radioactive gas tritium and are visible if the power fails in variety of public and private office buildings, theaters, stores, schools and churches � anywhere the public needs to get out quickly.

The nuclear cops say, “Tritium EXIT signs pose little or no threat to public health and safety and do not constitute a security risk.” But the feds added that proper handling and recordkeeping are important, because a damaged or broken sign could cause mild radioactive contamination of the immediate vicinity, requiring a potentially expensive clean up.

The NRC’s action follows officials of Wal-Mart stores admitting that a year-long audit by the corporation found that about 15,000 tritium exit signs of the 70,000 Wal-Mart had purchased over the years were lost, missing or otherwise unaccounted for.

Knowing that you’d want to know, I asked Homeland Security how much of a radioactive problem would be created if a bunch of these signs were blown up.

And, of course, and rightly so, a spokesperson in Washington said “You don’t really expect me to answer that do you?”

February 17, 2009

Toxic pet toys from China are still for sale

Filed under: Government & corporate wrong-doing,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 09:06

Pet lovers got a shock a couple of years ago when an investigation by Consumer Affairs discovered that many of the pet toys made in China contained toxic heavy metals or other dangerous substances.

I should know better, but for some reason I believed that the Food and Drug Administration cracked down on these poisonous playthings. Of course, that’s not the case. Several major pet supply chains promised to be more diligent but, at best, that’s hit or miss.
Last month, when I had one of my three labs at the vet, I listened to one of the techs passionately telling a pet owner that the reason her splotchy and almost bald cat was suffering was because of a reaction to toxic material in a Chinese-made scratching pole she’d bought at a warehouse store.

Then this week, I saw a story by Cheryl Bentley of The Suncoast News warning of similar problems.

In the interest of helping you keep your pets alive and avoid a mortgage-breaking vet bill, I thought I’d raise the issue again.

February 8, 2009

Chainsaw in airport and other tidbits.

Filed under: Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 22:20

I’m back in Seattle.

Traveling to the other coast is always a broadening experience for me. Not only because of the abundance of food that somehow never makes it to the Northwest (think delicatessen) but because of the strangeness that seems to flourish on the side of the country where the sun rises first.

For example:

Many of the glitziest bars in both New York City and Washington, DC are showing non-stop financial news instead of the fifth repeat of the Thai soccer playoffs or whatever else ESPN usually sends to the TV receivers attached to all flat surfaces.

“The non-stop, doom and gloom financial bulletins seem to be much better for the business of serious drinking,” a DC bartender explained to me.

* * * *

It looks like President Obama’s honeymoon is over if you judge by what the vendors of political souvenirs are selling to the tourists.

* * * *

Yes, the photo below does show a man in the security line at Washington’s National Airport carrying a chain saw. No. I don’t know what the fun-loving TSA inspectors did because my plane was leaving and I couldn’t wait.

(And, yes, I do know that officially the airport is in Virginia and is called Reagan, but some of us will never change our old ways.)

* * * *

When I finally got to my gate, the vendor at the news stand was putting the latest edition of Time in the magazine display.

The cover story: “How to Save Your Newspaper.” I couldn’t help noticing that the magazine was barely a third of its normal thickness.

The flight home seemed even longer.

February 3, 2009

Medical helicopters and bad peanut butter — we know better.

I’m back in Washington this week, the one on the Potomac. It didn’t take me long to remember that the person staffing the Oval Office may not have a lot to say about how the government really functions.

The absurdities of how agencies do their jobs continues to stun the new president’s team, especially when it comes to how the Food and Drug Administration has, and is, handling the salmonella-contaminated peanut butter products.

Congressional offices were fielding hundreds of calls and e-mails from constituents who were angered or incredulous when they learned that the FDA wasn’t permitted to order the enormous recall of thousands of products that used peanut butter or paste from the Peanut Corp. of America without permission of the company.

Let’s try this again. The federal food safety authorities who are trying to crack down on the tainted products that have sickened 550 people and killed at least eight can’t just shut the villain down?

No. Not even when the FDA can show that PCA has knowingly sold salmonella-contaminated peanut butter 12 times in the past two years.

Further, the company even gets to pick and choose the wording that FDA uses in the recall.

“It’s has been this way for years. The company’s feelings come before the health of the public,” an investigator who fought the battle in the field and in headquarters for years told me Tuesday.

“It’s stupid and painful to have to stand there with our federal hat in our hands waiting for the company’s approval of the language we use and whether or not we even send the damn recall out.”

Yesterday, both Congress and President Barack Obama said there would be a top-to-bottom review of FDA operations.

Meanwhile, 11 miles away from the FDA, the National Transportation Safety Board was working its way through four days of hearings on why med-evac helicopters were falling out of the sky across the country.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the safety board, said many of the nine fatal accidents could have been prevented and several of the almost three dozen fatalities could have been eliminated.

It looks as if we’re in another cycle of crashes, deaths, recommendations from the NTSB and failure of the Federal Aviation Administration to actually do anything.

The board says it will listen to more than 40 witnesses but has no plans to make recommendations.

“Why bother,” one accident investigator told me. “No matter what we say needs to be done, the FAA will again bow to the air ambulance industry and demand nothing.”

I have a troublesome perspective on why this NTSB expert is correct.

Twenty-three years ago, while at the Pittsburgh Press, two photographers and I investigated dozens of med-evac crashes and found many similar causes. Included were that hospitals that owned or leased the helicopters demanded or pressured air crews to fly in severe weather or greatly limited visibility, all to get the patients and their wallets back to their facilities. We were able to document that flight nurses, physicians, paramedics and patients were often killed when they struck their heads on sharp-edged emergency equipment attached to the ceilings and walls, or their spines and necks were broken when the flimsy seats collapsed. Meanwhile, up forward, pilots in helmets and strapped into crash-attenuating seats often survived the impact.

The NTSB confirmed many of our findings and issued a long list of recommendations for the FAA to make into laws and enforce.

Few, if any improvements were made, so again, hearings are being held on why livesavers were dying.

You think about it.

January 13, 2009

Dogs are dying in China. Why?

A Chinese public health specialist who helped me a bit with last month’s series of stories on the dangers from some imported honey from his country, called me this morning to say that his bosses in the Beijing government are “going to crack down” on their country’s food safety problems.

I would be naive to think that chloramphenicol and the other illegal antibiotics that tainted much of the Chinese honey that is smuggled into the U.S. would be at the top of the list, and, according to my friend, it isn’t.

“It will be addressed along the way. The Health Ministry will start off trying to control all additives to all food products, and there will be a unit that pays special attention to a food that is exported,” he told me.


Melamine-tainted cookies

The U.S. FDA has people already in Beijing. But their assignment was made permanent after disclosure that almost 300,000 children have been made painfully ill and in six cases killed by exposure to melamine-contaminated milk formula.

The chemical melamine is used in plastics and fertilizer, but was added to watery milk by unscrupulous bottlers because its shows up as protein during testing and adds to what is paid for the milk. Melamine has also been found in many products sold in the U.S. and Canada like cookies, chocolate, instant coffee, crackers and some baby formula.

Meanwhile, my friend says, health authorities are trying to track down reports this week that something in dog food is killing many animals.

“Start sickening children and pets and even the most lackadaisical government will take action,” added the physician, who was trained at UCLA and works in Hong Kong.

Here’s what the president says he accomplished.

Filed under: Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 10:36

Since our owners say the Post-Intelligencer will stop publishing in about 60 days, I thought I’d occasionally send my loyal followers some fodder to bulk up their reading material to use in our absence.

I’m not sure whether this first offering should be filed under fiction or non-fiction, but the White House has issued “The Policies of the Bush Administration 2001-2009.”

The 45-plus-page document has historic significance. It obviously has value to parents striving to help their offspring fulfill a homework assignment for their history teacher, but would-be public relations and damage-control specialists can also use it as a lesson plan on creative wordsmithing.

Here’s a link to it.

You will miss the P-I.

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