I never expected #idiocracy to become a documentary.
— Etan Cohen (@etanjc) February 24, 2016
When reality becomes stranger than fiction…
I took a large step back from politics for my own mental health and well-being for the last couple of years. Now that election time is upon us, I am having to pay attention, although nothing would make me happier than to look away from the train wreck before me. The GOP candidates are a bizarre lot of clowns that defy my sense of reality. I cannot believe that these are the best they could come up with and that the head clown, Donald Trump, could actually wind up leading this country.
When the first rumors of his candidacy began to trickle through my self-imposed exile from the political sphere, I welcomed the idea. “Yes!” I thought. “Bring it on. He will highlight the idiocy of the current incarnation of the Republican party.” But flirting with this type of danger may lead to a Trump presidency. The thought makes me shudder with fear, but I also feel a sense of inevitability. This is the logical direction of a country whose electorate has grown disillusioned, angry, and distrustful of government while being barraged by the increasingly extremist messages of the far right.
The Republican party has become home to a growing number of Americans who want to burn down our political and economic systems and hang our cultural elites. They’re tired of being policed by political correctness, often with the complicity of supposed conservatives. They don’t like Republican candidates who denounce them as “takers” with no future in the global economy. And they suspect, rightly, that the Chamber of Commerce will sell them down the river if it adds to the bottom line.-R. R. Reno, editor of First Things
This post could just be a rant against the state of American politics and The Donald, but I think he is just the candidate we deserve and have asked for. Ours is a prideful nation. American Exceptionalism is the law of the land: the United States, under God, is a divinely blessed nation, and that all of our endeavors are likewise inspired by a higher power. In-your-face, loud and proud worship of God and country-love it or leave it and if you’re not from here, get the hell out. We don’t want you here. Those candidates that have questioned these truths have suffered ignominious ends.
Trump has laid bare for the world to see just what values much of the United States hold dear. He is an unapologetic poster boy for all things ‘Merica. I hold no illusions that he believes most of the things he is saying. I think he is much smarter than that. Trump is giving us what we want.
A shoot-from-the-hip, belligerent show-off is the last thing we need or can afford.
So says Thomas Sowell of the Hoover institution at Harvard University. But not so long ago we had a two-term president that embodied that very description. I dare to say that Trump is a natural heir to the W.
Trump is loud, proud, boorish, vulgar, and speaks of himself in the third person. He builds monuments to his own manhood. He has no respect for tradition nor does he bow to the establishment. The Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and all of their like-minded brethren are outraged and disgusted, but Trump the Candidate embodies the fruits of all their labor. He is a veritable golem of their own creation: arrogance, wealth, megalomania, and certainty topped with a feathery wisp of ginger. The problem is that this is a beast that they cannot control. This is what comes as a result of their hubris.
“Our leaders are stupid, they are stupid people.”
Trump has outmaneuvered the golden boys and beaten them at their own game. It matters not whether he wins the nomination, because all of the players have been drawn into the childish sniping and name-calling that have made the debates both entertaining and oh, so depressing. Though not substantive on the issues, it’s somewhat refreshing to witness his utter disregard for politics as usual. If Cruz attacks his stance on an issue, Trump dismisses him as a Canadian. Jeb is a mama’s boy crybaby poopypants. I’ve coined a new word for getting dealt with by Trump: a TRUMPING. Those guys endured a serious trumping. I think he would like that.
Each time the establishment chastises him for dangerous and controversial rhetoric, Trump doubles down with something more outrageous and offensive, and his supporters ratchet up their enthusiasm exponentially. He has covered all the bases and hit all the right notes for those who are tired of beating around the bush. Bring on misogyny, torture, racism, greed, and xenophobia-Make America Great Again (for the select few who deserve it).
“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would! And I would approve more than that. Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work…And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing. It works.”
Trump says we need to bring back waterboarding as an interrogation method, which John McCain has stated unequivocally is torture. The man who received four student deferments before finally beating the draft on a medical deferment for heel spurs dismisses his opinion and essentially called McCain a loser for being captured. What more could we expect from a man who calls a fellow candidate a “pussy?” I see similar debate tactics on Facebook daily.
“If you had more guns, you’d have more protection because the right people would have the guns.”
MORE GUNS. ‘Nuff said.
“I am not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness. I don’t bring God into that picture….When I go to church and when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of forgiveness. I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed.”
This is American Christianity distilled. We go to church now and then, failing to contemplate the deeper meaning of spirituality. Nothing says American like our failure to be introspective. Why ask for forgiveness? What’s done is done. Those blights upon our history-the genocide of Native Americans, the hundreds of years we put people in chains, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, carpet bombing Cambodia, eh…this gets tiresome. Forget about it. But when it comes to legislating morality, we are practically salivating to control each other’s bodies and behavior.
“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
Because Great Walls are awesome and we’ll just submit the invoice in triplicate. An amusing vignette to imagine is Mr. Trump sweating away, building the wall. HAHA, hilarious.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bring crime. They’re rapists… And some, I assume, are good people.”
He shows his magnanimous nature here. Because you can’t dismiss an ENTIRE group of people. SOME of them are ok. Who’s going to build the wall, after all? We are tolerant, we just don’t like “thugs” or “illegals.” Speaking of great walls, what does he have to say to China?
“Listen you motherfuckers, we’re going to tax you 25 percent!”
This is the blunt hammer version of foreign economic policy. There is the small detail that Trump manufactures goods in China, but he says he has to, because it’s a good business decision. China devalues its currency so much, he can’t afford NOT to send jobs overseas! That’s why WE shop at Walmart, after all. How can you not?
“We’re fighting a very politically correct war, and the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”
Whoa, now we’re talking about war crimes. But hey, we’re already ok with collateral damage. It’s not just the terrorists we’re bombing. It’s called acceptable loss and it’s long been supported by most of the American people in the name of fighting terrorism or protecting American interests.
My list of quotes could go on and on, but let me point out a theme here: NONE of these quotes are anything that the bulk of GOP candidates and current office-holders haven’t said or supported in deed. Trump’s delivery is brash, but it is not controversial among the rank and file Republicans. Here is the difference: Trump has not been bought and paid for. This is the distinction that appeals to some voters. He is proudly avaricious. He has a hot wife. He doesn’t apologize for who he is: a rich, confident, powerful man. Ayn Rand would be proud.
When drawing the voting lines after the 2010 census, though, state lawmakers used race without regard to necessity, moving more black voters into districts where such voters had already established political strength – Rep. G.K. Butterfield in the First District for example, and Mel Watt in the Twelfth — leaving more white voters in surrounding districts.
My daughter has been in counseling for some time for anxiety issues. Sometimes I join her to both give feedback on her progress and to learn some ways that I can help her overcome her fears.
During one of these sessions we were discussing her fear of germs. I expressed my worry that I had caused this fear when she was just a tiny girl. I have always been a bit of a clean freak, especially regarding my children. I would always place a toilet paper barrier on public toilet seats so their precious bums wouldn’t be contaminated. I never let them get sticky or dirty. I told them about the different types of pathogens: bacteria, viruses, parasites.
When my daughter started kindergarten, knowing that I wouldn’t be there to protect her from all the nasty things, I reiterated over and over how important it was for her to wash her hands and to never eat or drink after anyone or wear their hats. I told her that other kids might not be so careful, so she had to be extra-vigilant.
The first sign of trouble was when she got into trouble for flushing the toilet with her foot. A big no-no with her teacher! In hindsight makes perfect sense as that would only spread more germs when other kids used their hands. She began to use a piece of toilet paper to protect her fingers as she flushed.
Next she began to develop very dry skin and an itchy rash on her hands, to the point the teacher thought it might be infectious and sent her home. We took her to the doctor and he determined that she had been over-using sanitizer while at school, which caused her poor little hands to be irritated. She would wash her hands, then use sanitizer. If she touched a doorknob or a handrail, she sanitized. If she touched someone else’s pencil, she sanitized.
I felt terribly guilty. I had transferred my fears to her. In my wish to protect her, I had inadvertently hurt her. While relating this story to her counselor, I became overwhelmed as I realized that I had probably been the main cause of her anxiety problems, by being anxious myself. The counselor tried to delve into this further, to the point that I physically wished to run away. My own anxiety level became nearly unbearable as she asked me what other types of things I fear.
My darkest and most distressing fear, and this is something I think of often, is of something bad happening to one of my children. I constantly think of possible scenarios. Car accidents, falling accidents, kidnappers, etc. I call them “disaster visions.” While not superstitious, I think somehow having these thoughts and being hyper-vigilant will help me keep those things from happening.
The counselor gently brought up the possibility that I might benefit from counseling myself. I was highly resistant to the idea. She suggested that seeking help would set an example for my daughter and help her with her own struggle with anxiety. She asked me to think about it, which I did…for weeks. I didn’t want to do it. I have been white-knuckling through life up until now. What if talking about things (with a stranger!) made me lose control? But how could I deny the possibility of helping my daughter by helping myself?
I have now seen a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy for a few sessions. I still feel very uncomfortable with talking about my feelings. Understanding this about me, he has done much of the talking, helping me to start to think about things in a different way. I would like to share here some of the things I am learning, but I will save that for another day.
Pablo Neruda is one of my favorite poets. This poem speaks to me on several levels, especially now that I have begun an uneasy journey into my own mind-so busy, always crowded with thoughts, fears, and worries. Modern society is the same way. We are always seeking distraction, entertainment, escape. Our televisions and smart phones and computers and tablets always present, stealing our quiet. What if we spent a few moments in silence? Sitting still with our breath and our heartbeats and with each other…
I am learning to quiet my mind, for just a few moments at a time. During those moments, I glimpse a hint-just an inkling of something precious…peace.
“KEEPING QUIET” BY PABLO NERUDA
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
—from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974)
Just before Christmas, my uncle committed suicide. My grandmother, Obachan, who lived with him, found him hanging. The last time I saw him, he looked like a beaten man. I later found out that he had attempted it before, while my grandmother was visiting relatives in Japan. His wife didn’t tell us about it. She had left him. He faced financial problems. He drank a lot. He was visibly depressed. Obachan, to this day, has not discussed the fact that he killed himself. It is supposed to be a secret.
As we packed up my grandmother’s belongings we found a little notebook with notes to his wife, his children, and his mother, written presumably during his previous attempt. He said he loved them, that he was tired, and that he was sorry. My mom told me a few years ago that he had begged her to take Obachan so that he could work on his marriage. She refused.
My grandmother had to move to Colorado to live with my mother, about whom I have written before. Mom left my sister and me with my father when we were kids. My father had been battling cancer for years when she left. Eventually he died due to complications from it. She didn’t come to the funeral. She didn’t come to claim me or my sister. We didn’t see her for years after…we rarely see her now. Our kids barely know her.
I love my mother, but I think it is an automatic love-something programmed into me because she gave birth to me, nursed me, and kept me alive when I was helpless. It is obligatory and painful. Our relationship consists of phone calls during which I listen to her talk about her life. She married my step-father shortly after leaving, and had my two brothers, whom she managed to raise to adulthood, thank goodness. Mom talks about them, their accomplishments and failures, her own trials and tribulations…I listen.
My sister and I have accepted that mom is incapable of empathy. We suspect she is a narcissist. When all of this happened she lamented to me, “if only I hadn’t married your father, my parents wouldn’t have ever moved to this country and your uncle wouldn’t have met his wife, and none of this would have ever happened.”
Our children know that Grandma is not the doting type. She doesn’t send gifts or visit or call them. She doesn’t keep photos of them in her wallet (or smartphone). She is ill-equipped to give comfort and sympathy to the grieving in more than a superficial manner. This brings us to the plight of Obachan…
Mom calls to complain about Obachan nearly every day. She’s not eating, she is locked in her room, she cries all the time, she is miserable here. No shit, she found her only son hanging. Her daughter is a sociopath. She wants to go home. There is no home to go to. The home is in foreclosure. It turns out that my uncle used my grandmother’s credit to purchase cars, pay bills, pay for his estranged wife’s bills, his kids’ car insurance, the list goes on. My grandmother is in serious debt that she knew nothing about. At 87 years of age, she will never pay it all off. She has been betrayed by her son in so many ways, and now her daughter wants to be rid of her. Mom says my step father didn’t sign up for taking care of her mother (or the two kids she had previously).
Unless my sister or I take her in, mom says she will allow her to go to the daughter of my uncle-my cousin who went to jail for stealing thousands from my grandmother’s bank account. Who, incidentally, would have avoided prosecution if she had told Obachan the truth. Since she denied the theft, they reported it to police, who witnessed the video of her withdrawing the money from an ATM. This genius cousin raises only one of her four children, the baby. Her pattern is to love the babies, then give them up when they are older and more annoying. I suspect she has a problem with drugs. I know for a fact that she can’t take care of her own children, let alone my grandmother-something my mother knows as well.
Obachan took care of my sister and me when we were little. When one of us had a bad dream or fell down and skinned a knee, Obachan was the one who gave us kisses and Band-Aids. She cooked delicious meals and and sewed our dresses and cooed over our artwork. She also took care of my uncle’s children and their children until they no longer had need of her. There are three people in my family who loved my sister and me unconditionally; two of them are dead, the other is Obachan.
My children love her dearly and endure her endless fussing over them, though it sometimes embarrasses them. She tells cashiers and passersby on the street that these are her “grand-grand children.” They are fascinated by her, this link to their Japanese heritage. She makes quilts and aprons and knits doilies for everything. She has a supernatural green thumb, able to take a little tiny snip of a stem and grow it into a tree. She saves every scrap of food, down to the crusts of toast, because she can’t bear waste. She is annoying, nosy, bossy, and weird, but we love her.
I live in an 1100 square foot house with more people and pets than I have rooms. When my mother in law had to live with us for seven months, she stayed in our living room on a hospital bed, which drove us all crazy. It was traumatic for my children and really untenable as a permanent solution. My sister is in a similar situation. I could finish a room in my basement or my sister could find a bigger apartment, but neither of us have the resources for either of those things at present. My mother, whose home is nearly 5000 square feet and who subsists on six figures, can’t seem to find a way to help. Her struggle is real.
I am overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for a person who is near the end of her lifetime. I am already overwhelmed by my other responsibilities. I recently had a hysterectomy, which depleted my sick leave. I juggle weekly doctor’s appointments for the many issues that my children face, trying not to let it interfere with work. My day is full from dawn until my weary head hits my pillow. What happens when my grandmother comes to stay? I think she is clinically depressed, but the language and cultural barriers make it difficult to find help for her. I communicate with her with a mixture of Japanese, English, and hand gestures. Usually, we both reach the point of fuck it, never mind.
The way that my mother seems to think we should take care of Obachan, without regard for the impact on our finances, our marriages, or our children, shouldn’t shock me. I tried to explain the obstacles. Her response: “then tell her you don’t want her.”
My uncle’s suicide hit my eldest daughter pretty hard. We weren’t close to him, but he was always nice to the kids when we saw him. When my daughter saw him in the casket, his death became real to her. Obachan’s pain was hard for her to witness. She began to think of losing her own parents and loved ones. She struggles with depression herself, as do many of us on both sides of her family. She began to think, what if I ever get that hopeless? She has been in counseling over this and other things going on in her life.
Will taking on the care of another person further diminish my capacity to take care of my own children, who need me now more than ever? Will it affect my marriage adversely? Will the stress be too much to bear? Do we have a choice here? What is the right thing to do? My Christian friends would say that God gives us no more than we can handle, but I don’t believe that. We handle things until we can’t, as my uncle so sadly illustrates.
I believe our only option is to figure out a way to take care of her. How can we not, when mom would allow her to go into a potentially abusive and unhealthy situation? My sister and I are going to work together to figure it out. OUR husbands, thankfully, take seriously the vow of “for better, for worse.” I can’t help but think that when the time comes, my mother will also expect us to take care of her. What will I do then?
Brilliant logic right here, folks!
Recently, about 100 children became infected with measles in an outbreak, and everyone has been quick to blame the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. However, I think that the vaccine skeptics’ arguments make perfect sense. I just don’t think that we should be limiting these arguments only to vaccines, and if we’re really serious about keeping our children safe, we should treat even the seemingly innocent things like food with the same amount of healthy skepticism. Here are 10 reasons why you as a parent should never give your children any food.
1) Food has some scary side effects, and hundreds of people die of food poisoning every year.
2) There is an established link between food and autism, because 99.95%…
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For the better part of the last week, I was with my mom and grandmother together for the first time in I don’t know how long. Decades? My uncle, with whom my grandmother (Obaachan) lived, died suddenly. As is often the case, tragedy brings a family together, at least for a short time. My family is not close even in the best of circumstances. We had to pack up all of my grandmother’s belongings and prepare her for a cross-country move to my mom’s house. It was very traumatising for her, losing her only son, and basically losing all of her stuff in one fell swoop.
As we packed Obaachan’s things, we looked at old photographs and reminisced before placing them in back into boxes. My mother took charge of the packing, basically deciding what was junk and what was a keeper. Being very unsentimental and a minimalist, she was brutal. My grandmother would stealthily pull things from the donation and trash piles and sneak them back into the keep pile. It was funny, but also sad. I want to be a minimalist, but I understand the bond we have to our things. For my grandmother, every letter, every trinket, every dish has a memory and value attached. “Kore wa Obaachan no daiji (die-jee).” “This is Obaachan’s important/valuable thing,” in Japanese.
Daiji is a word that my whole family understands. If I tell my kids a thing is daiji they rarely disturb it. It is sacred. My grandmother kept asking, almost pleading “will you keep it?” Yes, we said, over and over again. My sister and I took her stuff back to my house, because I have a basement. Later, we will go through the process of sorting, dividing and purging a lifetime’s worth of collecting. I hope we do it soon, but the fact that my father’s stuff is still in boxes down there is not very encouraging. He died nearly 25 years ago. It’s hard to face all that STUFF and all of those MEMORIES, let alone split it between us. It seems wrong. What about the stuff that neither of us wants? Now I have a basement FULL of DAIJI stuff!
Someone snapped a photo of my sister and me with our children, Obaachan, and mom all together. Although we bickered and bitched at each other the whole time, that photo is special too-something for the daiji pile. In it we look happy to be together. In reality, it was stressful and a bit painful. But we were there for each other as much as we could be. Who knows when we will all be together again?
The table that I ate at as a child is now in my kitchen. It replaces an old fifties table and four ratty chairs that we supplemented with stepstools when we all decided to sit together. Finally, I can seat all of my family at once, plus some! I finally feel like a grown up, at 41 years of age, because of that table. If I could only pick one thing to keep besides photographs, it would be that. On it was set the lavish New Year’s dinners that we enjoyed when I was a little girl. My sister and I used to fling sheets over it and crawl beneath to play fort. My dearly departed father and grandfather, and every dear relative sat upon those chairs at one time or another. Though my children and my nieces have never met my father or grandfather, their precious little butts will sit on the same chairs upon which my forefathers sat. That table is my daiji.
I’m not sure what I am feeling right now, other than sad and thoughtful. I am thinking about all the smiling faces in those old photographs and our own smiling faces in that recent photo of us. Smiling faces hiding pain and loss or smiling faces expressing genuine joy…they all seem to look the same.
Yesterday I attended Asheville’s second Mountain Moral Monday, a movement that started in Raleigh in 2012 in protest of the extremist policies of the NC General Assembly, most of which have been signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory. Early estimates put the number of attendees at about 5,000-6,500 people-down from last year’s 10,000, but an impressive turnout nonetheless.
The Moral Monday movement’s organizer and state NAACP chapter president, Reverend William J. Barber, was in attendance. Barber and hundreds of others have been arrested for peaceful protests in Raleigh and vilified by the far right. The Moral Monday movement has been reported on by national outlets and versions of the movement are beginning to spread around the country. A short clip of his speech can be found here. I hope to add the full video when it becomes available.
Yesterday’s rally focused on voter registration and bringing public awareness to the continuing struggle for equality, environmental protection, quality education and support for teachers, immigration reform, and healthcare for all. There were several speakers directly affected by recent legislation: a doctor from a rural community, a single mother, an undocumented immigrant, a teacher, a gay minister who wants to marry her partner…
Those who attended the rally carried signs that addressed issues important to them.
Since Republicans won a super-majority in the General Assembly in 2012, NC legislators have succeeded in pushing forward the far-right’s agenda, such as Amendment One-a Constitutional amendment which bars recognition of same-sex marriages. The earned income credit is expiring this year, as are several deductions and exemptions that will result in a higher tax burden for the working poor and the middle class.
In 2016, the new voter ID law will require voters to show a photo ID to vote. Early voting days have already been cut, and several polling locations have been closed, leading to longer lines and more difficulty casting a vote, especially for minorities.
Legislators have also voted to fast-track fracking and criminalize the disclosure of the chemicals used in the process. This law, the so-called “Energy Modernization Act,” was passed without public notice or time for public comment-a tactic which has become par for the course in NC.
Restrictions on reproductive rights, unemployment and Medicaid cuts, immigration issues, and tax cuts for the rich may also be added to the laundry list of grievances about which NC voters have become increasingly concerned. North Carolina has become a test lab for all of the regressive policies that tea-party driven politics have wrought.
For decades, the far right has claimed to be the moral voice of “real” Americans. Their so-called Christian values are the source of their morality and the reason for the positions they take on everything from gay marriage and women’s rights, to their draconian stance on the refugee crisis at our border. But some Republicans are finding the courage to speak out against what they believe are immoral acts by the government. Reverend Barber recently joined forces in Washington, DC with Adam O’Neal, the Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC, who had just walked 300 miles to the capitol to bring awareness to the health care crisis that that has occurred as a direct result of not accepting federal funds for expanded Medicaid. “For me and the mayor, it’s not about partisan politics,” Rev. Barber said. “It’s about what’s right.”
Wearily I rise as birds begin their morning song,
Thankful for the peace that seems to only come at dawn.
The weight of slumber is not so heavy
As the daily mask I wear.
My smile fixed like a rictus, but I edit it with care.
I tuck away my sorrow like strands of fallen hair.
My eyes, deep pools, never shed their tears.
The salty pearls are swallowed,
How bitter are those spheres!
Carefully arranged, it’s time to face the day.
So practiced, so artful, so perfectly assembled…
I rarely have to fill the cracks that form along the way.
On January 27, 3.5 million gallons of raw sewage poured into the Haw River from a cracked main at a Burlington, NC wastewater treatment facility. Residents were not notified of the breach until January 30, despite state law requiring public notification within 48 hours of any spill over 1,000 gallons. Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources, stated that the spill constituted only 1 percent of the water flowing through the Haw River at the time; therefore it had no major impact on the environment. Perhaps those who live on or near the river would beg to differ. Why the terrible breach? Most of NC’s water pipes are made of wood or corroding metal. “We have incredibly old infrastructure in North Carolina,” says Reeder. “The thing is it costs billions and billions and billions of dollars to replace all of this aging infrastructure.” And we know that no one wants to spend money on protecting the environment these days, especially in GOP-dominated North Carolina…
In February, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Raleigh opened a criminal investigation into a coal ash spill that resulted in 27 MILLION gallons of toxic sludge being dumped into the Dan River from a now defunct Duke Energy power plant. The public was not notified of the spill until the next day. It took six days to seal the ruptured pipe. It was a full ten days until state officials warned residents not to swim in the river or eat fish from it.
The spill was blamed on a corroded storm water drain that runs beneath the 27 acre (!) coal ash pond. Who puts a storm water drain under a toxic, unlined coal ash pond? Everyone, apparently! There are no federal regulations regulating coal ash ponds, notes Tom Reeder. More than a dozen of the 31 Duke Energy coal ash ponds in North Carolina have been deemed unsafe and liable to fail at any time. That means that a tasty cocktail of benzene, mercury, lead, and arsenic could be leaching into groundwater from a coal ash pond near you.
Duke Energy Chief Executive Lynn Good said that customers would pay the cost if the state requires the company to empty its 31 coal ash ponds in NC. Duke Energy CFO Steve Young recently informed his investors of compliance costs on a Februrary 18 conference call:
“We currently estimate we will spend between $4.5 billion and $5.5 billion over the next 10 years, with $900 million expected to be spent in the 2014 to 2016 time frame…Approximately 85 percent of our expected environmental compliance investments will be in the Carolinas and Indiana. Both of these jurisdictions have a strong track record of allowing utilities to recover costs related to environmental compliance investments.”
In other words, the company fully expects that NC legislators will allow Duke Energy to charge its customers for the cleanup. Where on earth would they get that idea? From recent history, that’s where!
As a shareholder, Governor McCrory has profited directly from the company, whose profits for the past fiscal year were $2.7 billion. Shareholders enjoyed a 25% increase in earnings after the company’s controversial merger with Progress Energy, which created the nation’s largest utility company. Did you say monopoly? What monopoly? So, in a nutshell, profits are passed on to shareholders while costs are shifted to the ratepayer. Ah, business…the crony capitalist way!
Before the latest spill, NC environmentalist groups had tried three times in the last year to sue Duke Energy and force the corporation to clean up its toxic coal ash dumps. Each time, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) blocked the lawsuits to assert its own authority over regulatory enforcement. The environmental groups were shut out of negotiations that resulted in a proposed settlement considered by many to be highly favorable to the company.
Environmentalists criticized the DENR for its seemingly cozy relationship with Duke Energy, noting the $99,111 proposed settlement fine for pollution from two previous coal ash pond leaks in Charlotte and Asheville constituted nothing but a slap on the wrist for the $50 billion company. The settlement would have required Duke to study how to stop contamination, but would not require the company to clean up the sites. Lawyers from the DENR have now asked judges to disregard their own proposed settlement after public scrutiny has caused backlash and criticism, in addition to the pesky federal probe. The investigation is focusing closely on the relationship between the regulators and the Duke Energy.
The Southern Environment Law Center obtained 400 pages of emails from the DENR as part of legal efforts to force shutdown and clean up of the state’s coal ash ponds. The emails show that DENR officials have known about the problem and have been studying it since at least 2008, after a similar spill in Tennessee. The DENR found that Progress Energy and Duke had not obtained required stormwater permits for several of the coal ash ponds. Attempts to request that the companies obtain proper permits were rebuffed. “Why we would do this when we are looking for a kinder gentler regulatory framework according to the Governor?” asked Duke environmental and legislative director George Everett in a 2011 email. Is seems that he was right to stall. All Duke Energy needed was a Republican-led legislature.
After budget cuts and a shift in focus, the DENR all but dropped its pursuit of permit enforcement. “The legislature has not created a culture where DENR feels like it can act aggressively, and that has gotten worse since the GOP took over the legislature,” said Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro.
Governor McCrory has chided reporter’s questions about his relationship with Duke Energy as “disrespectful.” It is certain that he and other GOP lawmakers are scrambling to save face after the launch of the federal investigation. He defends his record, stating that “Our DENR under our administration has taken the most aggressive action in North Carolina history.” REALLY?
The relationship between lawmakers and Duke Energy warmed considerably after Governor McCrory took office. At least $1.1 million was contributed to the McCrory campaign by Duke’s PAC, executives, and their immediate families. Duke Energy shareholder and former employee McCrory appointed businessman and climate change skeptic John Skvarla, who has stated the dubious claim that coal is an infinite resource, to head the DENR. After his appointment, he stated that the environment was not his only concern. He characterizes those companies that he regulates as “customers” and the DENR as a “partner” to those entities. His duties, as he saw them:
“Protect the environment and help the economy because DENR has such a bad name. DENR is the number one obstacle to economic growth in the state of North Carolina for a long time.”
Skvarla, who had no experience in environmental regulation before his appointment, told the John Locke Society that if environmentalists had their way, “we’d live in lean-tos and wear loincloths.”
Michael Burkhard, a former senior specialist tasked with investigations into contamination, says that the environment within the agency took a turn after McCrory appointed Skvarla. He stated that his powers to regulate enforcement were weakened and that proposed penalties had to be submitted to Raleigh for ultimate approval before being levied on violators. “The message was that we shouldn’t hold anyone accountable or responsible…They told us that industry and business do a better job of regulating themselves than we do,” Berkhard told Salon. Other employees have stated that their jobs were threatened if they didn’t get with the program.
Legislators have been steadily chipping away at DENR jobs and funding since the 2008 recession. Under Skvarla, the DENR returned almost $600,000 to the EPA that was supposed to have been used to test waters that are potentially affected by fracking and for wetlands research, because the unit that would have handled the tests was eliminated. Legislators also cut the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which was established to protect watersheds, from a $100 million fund to $11.5 million.
The DENR lost 30 positions in between 2009-2010, and since 2011 has lost 225 positions. The water resources unit has been the hardest hit within the DENR, constituting half of all job cuts since McCrory took office. 67 of those job cuts were since March 1, well after the devastating coal ash spill. The reduction in force was part of Skvarla’s broad restructuring of the agency that began last summer. Now seven regional offices must stretch dwindled resources to continue fulfilling its duties. Here in Asheville, a crew of 12 persons is tasked with monitoring 19 surrounding counties.
Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a seven-term Republican from Marion, NC, made it his mission to gut environmental laws after the GOP took over the General Assembly, in an effort to clear the way for hydraulic fracturing and other oil and gas friendly pursuits. One of those bills resulted in the famous law against sea level change, or rather, the way we measure it. Has he targeted DENR? Absolutely, he says:
“Now, are we targeting DENR? Well, I am. I’m actually targeting regulatory reform. It just so happens that DENR is the issue that I’ve been involved with all my life, as far as regulations go.”
Gillespie, who has received contributions from Duke, Progress Energy and natural gas company PSNC, says that DENR regulations have cost him tens of thousands over his years in the industry.
The Republican-led legislature has been very active in gutting environmental regulations, making deregulation and defunding a top priority. The Raleigh News and Observer reports on the disturbing trend:
“Three major bills that either streamlined or decimated – depending on your point of view – environmental regulations have been enacted since 2011. One such bill prohibits state regulations that are more stringent than federal regulations, and takes decision-making authority on disputes over regulations out of state agencies’ hands.
A 59-page bill enacted from last year’s session restricts local environmental ordinances, weakens groundwater protections around landfills such as coal ash ponds, and requires state agencies to review all their rules every 10 years and trim those that can’t be justified. The bill required DENR be the first agency to undertake the time-consuming process, beginning with some 500 water quality and wetlands rules, with its diminished staff.
Another bill enacted into law last session removed Democratic-appointed incumbents from state commissions, including the Environmental Management Commission and the Coastal Resources Commission, and replace them with Republican appointees, eliminating the expertise and continuity of the former members.”
A federal subpoena of the governor’s office, the DENR, and Duke Energy requires documents, emails, sampling results, and records regarding the Dan River Steam Station to be handed over for a Grand Jury to review beginning March 18.
***Fellow blogger and friend BTG has also written about the questionable relationship between regulators and Duke Energy on his blog, Musings of an Old Fart. Please visit and tell him I sent you!***