Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 21st, 2014

The Indian sanitary pad revolutionary

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A totally fascinating article in the BBC News Magazine by Vibeke Venema. Although there is much struggle, there are no villains. Well worth reading. It begins:

Arunachalam Muruganantham’s invention came at great personal cost – he nearly lost his family, his money and his place in society. But he kept his sense of humour.

“It all started with my wife,” he says. In 1998 he was newly married and his world revolved around his wife, Shanthi, and his widowed mother. One day he saw Shanthi was hiding something from him. He was shocked to discover what it was – rags, “nasty cloths” which she used during menstruation.

“I will be honest,” says Muruganantham. “I would not even use it to clean my scooter.” When he asked her why she didn’t use sanitary pads, she pointed out that if she bought them for the women in the family, she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk or run the household.

Wanting to impress his young wife, Muruganantham went into town to buy her a sanitary pad. It was handed to him hurriedly, as if it were contraband. He weighed it in his hand and wondered why 10g (less than 0.5oz) of cotton, which at the time cost 10 paise (£0.001), should sell for 4 rupees (£0.04) – 40 times the price. He decided he could make them cheaper himself.

He fashioned a sanitary pad out of cotton and gave it to Shanthi, demanding immediate feedback. She said he’d have to wait for some time – only then did he realise that periods were monthly. “I can’t wait a month for each feedback, it’ll take two decades!” He needed more volunteers.

When Muruganantham looked into it further, he discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads – fewer than one in 10. His findings were echoed by a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.

Muruganantham says that in rural areas, the take-up is far less than that. He was shocked to learn that women don’t just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash.

Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.Finding volunteers to test his products was no mean feat. His sisters refused, so he had the idea of approaching female students at his local medical college. “But how can a workshop worker approach a medical college girl?” Muruganantham says. “Not even college boys can go near these girls!” . . .

Continue reading. The story is very satisfying. I was particularly struck by this:

Muruganantham seemed set for fame and fortune, but he was not interested in profit. “Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make low-cost sanitary napkins – a hot-cake product,” he says. “Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty – everything happens because of ignorance.”

He believes that big business is parasitic, like a mosquito, whereas he prefers the lighter touch, like that of a butterfly. “A butterfly can suck honey from the flower without damaging it,” he says.

As readers know, I believe that corporations suffer from perverse incentives (maximize profit above all), which leads them to do despicable things (cf. Duke Energy) to their employees and their communities and (all too often) their customers (cf. Ford knowingly building cars that were fiery death traps because it would be somewhat more profitable than building a safe car). The thinking (if one can call it that) is:

1. Profit!
2. ???
3. A beneficent and happy life

This guy sees clearly that profit may not be the essential ingredient. As it says, one can achieve the benefit without damaging lives.

Plus, of course, I resonate to the idea of approaching a problem rationally, ignoring taboos and conventions created by ignorance. What a guy!

UPDATE: The more I thought about it, the more I liked the marked transformation from a small impetus—look, for example, at the changes in his own village. Or this:

He was once asked whether receiving the award from the Indian president was the happiest moment of his life. He said no – his proudest moment came after he installed a machine in a remote village in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where for many generations nobody had earned enough to allow children to go to school.

A year later, he received a call from a woman in the village to say that her daughter had started school. “Where Nehru failed,” he says, “one machine succeeded.”

Through one small effort—and the decision to have as a goal the greatest use rather than the maximum profit—enormous changes ensue: a landslide starting from one pebble (though the pebble was clearly difficult to dislodge).

UPDATE 2: The unexpected cultural changes that follow from the introduction of small (and inexpensive) manufacturing of sanitary pads reminded me of something I had read about earlier: how the invention of the bicycle had unexpected consequences. Peter Barnes wrote the following letter to The Guardian:

The work of James Tanner (obituary, 15 October) is replete with thought-provoking observations. His time as a pupil at Marlborough college appears, later, to have afforded him access to the records of the medical officer and the natural science master dating from 1873. Using these as a baseline, Tanner showed how the average height of the boys when aged sixteen and a half had risen by half an inch a decade over an 80-year period. In Foetus Into Man (1978), he suggested that this “secular trend” was in part a consequence of improved nutrition, but also attributable to genetic factors. The latter included the increased incidence of procreation outside the village community, a key factor in which was the introduction of the bicycle.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2014 at 4:04 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Health

How orders to commit war crimes are phrased

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Sophie Richardot, a social psychologist at Université de Picardie, France, wrote a research paper, titled “’You Know What to Do With Them’: The Formulation of Orders and Engagement in War Crimes.” Bettina Chang writes about Richardot’s research in Pacific Standard:

Earlier this year, an 88-year-old man was charged in Germany for crimes committed in 1944 Nazi-occupied France. Prosecutors say “the suspect shot 25 men as part of a firing squad, and then helped as troops blockaded and then set fire to a church, in which dozens of women and children were burned alive,” according to the Associated Press. He was only 19 at the time.

On this side of history, during a relatively peaceful era in a stable nation, it’s nearly impossible to comprehend the atrocities of war. But the fact of the matter is that people often give orders to commit these types of crimes, and other human beings frequently obey. What does that say about human nature?

Sophie Richardot, a social psychologist at Université de Picardie, France, sought to answer this question. She first became interested in the subject in relation to Milgram’s famed obedience experiment. Milgram showed the disturbing extent to which normal people are willing to inflict pain on people in the name of obeying authority. Richardot says that Milgram’s orders were not coercive, but they were explicit.

From what she knew about the Holocaust and other mass war crimes, however, the orders were more coded and ambiguous. So she set about categorizing the orders given to commit war crimes and looking for patterns.

Her research paper, titled “’You Know What to Do With Them’: The Formulation of Orders and Engagement in War Crimes,” was published in the March/April 2014 issue of Aggression and Violent Behavior. She examined historical accounts of three modern conflicts: the German invasion of the USSR during World War II, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and the most recent American conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Richardot found five distinct formulations of orders, each which provides, to some extent, a psychological cushion for subordinates to justify their actions. Regimes that are legally in power, like the United States military, tend to use . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2014 at 3:42 pm

The FDA is badly broken and also underfunded: Sunscreens edition

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I wish Obama were more interested in fixing the Executive Branch of the government. He seems mainly focused on enabling it to continue as it is (cf. NSA, CIA, FDA, SEC, DOJ, and so on). Read Brady Dennis’s article in the Washington Post:

The tourists flocking to the French Riviera or Spain’s Costa del Sol this summer will slather on sunscreen containing the latest ingredients for protecting against the sun’s most harmful ultraviolet rays.But American beachgoers will have to make do with sunscreens that dermatologists and cancer-research groups say are less effective and have changed little over the past decade.

That’s because applications for the newer sunscreen ingredients have languished for years in the bureaucracy of the Food and Drug Administration, which must approve the products before they reach consumers.“We have a system here that’s completely broken down, and everybody knows that it has broken down,” said Wendy Selig, president of the Melanoma Research Alliance, the largest private funder of melanoma research.Her group and others, along with dermatologists and sunscreen manufacturers, have joined forces to make a public push for the FDA to approve at least some of the backlogged applications.The agency has not expanded its list of approved sunscreen ingredients since 1999. Eight ingredient applications are pending, some dating to 2003. Many of the ingredients are designed to provide broader protection from certain types of UV rays and were approved years ago in Europe, Asia, South America and elsewhere.

The FDA noted that U.S. consumers “have access to a great number of sunscreen products,” but said in a statement to The Washington Post that it recognizes the public health importance of sunscreen and has prioritized its review of the long-pending applications. The agency said “it is proceeding as quickly as practicable given available review resources and competing public health responsibilities.”

In the meantime, advocates for newer sunscreens have grown increasingly frustrated.

“These sunscreens are being used by tens of millions of people every weekend in Europe, and we’re not seeing anything bad happening,” said Darrell S. Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University and past president of the American Academy of Dermatologists. “It’s sort of crazy. . . . We’re depriving ourselves of something the rest of the world has.”

Even some FDA officials have expressed frustration about how the applications have become mired in a complex regulatory regime, adopted more than a decade ago, that was originally intended to simplify approvals for over-the-counter products used in other countries for at least five years.

“This is a very intractable problem. I think, if possible, we are more frustrated than the manufacturers and you all are about this situation,” Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, told lawmakers in November when asked about the agency’s sluggish over-the-counter reviews.

Part of the holdup, she said, is that . . .

Continue reading. Maybe sunscreen makers are lucky: scientists who wanted to study the effectiveness of marijuana as a treatment for PTSD waited 14 years to get approval—14 years.

Increasingly the US government seems to be badly broken, beholden to corporations and big money and unable to function.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2014 at 1:09 pm

Tech companies are like other companies: They will do anything that increases profits

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David Dayen provides examples in Salon:

To really understand the extent of Google and Apple’s innovative zeal, you may want to look past their groundbreaking products – and more at their tax avoidance strategies. In a new scheme that defies belief, some of the nation’s top tech giants are managing to evade taxation on money by parking it overseas – and then somehow taking government paymentson it.

Though the rest of the business sector had a head start, tech firms have begun to lobby Washington with more persistence over the past few years; the top 10 spent more than $61 million in 2013. The more hopeful among us might believe this shift could possibly produce more beneficial results for the public. (After all, Google’s motto is “don’t be evil,” right?)

But while it’s true that, in certain discrete areas, tech lobbying has yielded positive results — like when companies aided grass-roots efforts to stop Internet censorship legislation sought by Hollywood — in the vast majority of cases, Silicon Valley wants what the rest of our multinational conglomerates want: low taxes and cheap labor. And they’ve been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that.

Take a look at the recent Bloomberg report on companies stockpiling cash in offshore tax havens to avoid higher U.S. rates, for example. (Though the new FiveThirtyEight.comdownplayed the significance of this buildup, in actuality it has increased at a fairly steady 10-15 percent rate since the start of the Great Recession.) The tech sector has led the way on this, moving their patents and other intellectual property to low-tax countries to give the appearance that their profits have been earned offshore.

According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Apple, Microsoft and IBM accelerated their overseas profit hoarding in 2013 more than their counterparts, adding $37.5 billion to the pile. Over the past three years, Microsoft’s cash stash has more than doubled, and Apple’s has quadrupled. In all, seven tech companies – the three mentioned above, along with Cisco Systems, Oracle, Google and Hewlett-Packard – have $341.3 billion sitting in offshore accounts. At current tax rates, the companies would have to pay $119.45 billion of that to the IRS if they repatriated it. Much of this money is held insegregated U.S. bank accounts, solely for the purpose of avoiding taxes by nominally keeping it offshore.

Sure enough, tech firms are among the companies lobbying for a repatriation tax holiday, which would allow them to return that money home at ultra-low rates. The LIFT Coalition(short for Let’s Invest for Tomorrow), run by former Obama administration communications director Anita Dunn, advocates for the repatriation holiday, and includes Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, the Semiconductor Industry Association, and “TechNet,” a separate lobbying coalition that counts as its members Google and Facebook.

These lobbying coalitions claim that repatriating the money will allow companies to invest and spur economic recovery, although the last repatriation tax holiday, in 2004, did nothing of the sort. The top 15 companies that made use of that holiday to move money home actually cut 20,000 jobs in the aftermath, while increasing their executive compensation and stock buybacks, according to a report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (Hewlett-Packard and IBM were among the 15 companies benefiting the most). Sadly, both the recent Republican tax reform proposal and the Obama administration’s budget call for a repatriation tax holiday along the lines of the lobbying coalition’s wishes, so their efforts could bear fruit.

But it’s actually worse than all this. A report from the Bureau on Investigative Journalismshows that these tech firms are actually taking government payments on the money they have parked overseas to avoid taxation. That’s because that money isn’t sitting under a mattress somewhere in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands; it’s invested, and the No. 1 investment these firms use is the ultra-safe, ultra-liquid instrument of U.S. government debt.

SEC filings show that Apple, Microsoft, Google and Cisco have $163 billion invested in various forms of interest-bearing U.S. debt. If they were a country (Silicon Valleyistan), that would be the 14th-largest holding of our debt in the world, more than the sovereign wealth funds of Singapore and Norway. Despite the investments in things like Treasury notes and agency debt, the money is still considered offshore, avoiding taxation even as it collects interest from the U.S. government. The annual interest payout to just these four firms is$326 million.

Silicon Valley has mobilized to ensure this gravy train continues into perpetuity. . .

Continue reading. He also describes the coordinated efforts of tech companies to keep employee salaries low by ensuring that the free market did not apply. His concluding paragraph:

None of this is particularly surprising. Tech firms are in the business of making money, regardless of the shiny products and Web apps and social media diversions that supply their revenue stream. They cut all the corners that the rest of corporate America cuts to maximize their profits, skirting the edges of the law and sometimes going over it. You may not want to believe that the companies that give you the iPad and help you in your search for cat videos operate like a two-bit hustler, stealing the wages of employees and setting up dummy tax shelters. But that’s the sad reality.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2014 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Business, Law, Technology

If you’re a sys admin, you’re in NSA’s sights

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NSA truly is an octopus trying to engulf the world. Ryan Gallagher and Peter Maass write at The Intercept:

Across the world, people who work as system administrators keep computer networks in order – and this has turned them into unwitting targets of the National Security Agency for simply doing their jobs. According to a secret document provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the agency tracks down the private email and Facebook accounts of system administrators (or sys admins, as they are often called), before hacking their computers to gain access to the networks they control.

The document consists of several posts – one of them is titled “I hunt sys admins” – that were published in 2012 on an internal discussion board hosted on the agency’s classified servers. They were written by an NSA official involved in the agency’s effort to break into foreign network routers, the devices that connect computer networks and transport data across the Internet. By infiltrating the computers of system administrators who work for foreign phone and Internet companies, the NSA can gain access to the calls and emails that flow over their networks.

The classified posts reveal how the NSA official aspired to create a database that would function as an international hit list of sys admins to potentially target. Yet the document makes clear that the admins are not suspected of any criminal activity – they are targeted only because they control access to networks the agency wants to infiltrate. “Who better to target than the person that already has the ‘keys to the kingdom’?” one of the posts says.

The NSA wants more than just passwords. The document includes a list of other data that can be harvested from computers belonging to sys admins, including network maps, customer lists, business correspondence and, the author jokes, “pictures of cats in funny poses with amusing captions.” The posts, boastful and casual in tone, contain hacker jargon  (pwn, skillz, zomg, internetz) and are punctuated with expressions of mischief. “Current mood: devious,” reads one, while another signs off, “Current mood: scheming.”

The author of the posts, whose name is being withheld by The Intercept, is a network specialist in the agency’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, according to other NSA documents. The same author wrote secret presentations related to the NSA’s controversial program to identify users of the Tor browser – a privacy-enhancing tool that allows people to browse the Internet anonymously. The network specialist, who served as a private contractor prior to joining the NSA, shows little respect for hackers who do not work for the government. One post expresses disdain for the quality of presentations at Blackhat and Defcon, the computer world’s premier security and hacker conferences:

defcon

It is unclear how precise the NSA’s hacking attacks are or how the agency ensures that it excludes Americans from the intrusions. The author explains in one post that the NSA scours the Internet to find people it deems “probable” administrators, suggesting a lack of certainty in the process and implying that the wrong person could be targeted. It is illegal for the NSA to deliberately target Americans for surveillance without explicit prior authorization. But the employee’s posts make no mention of any measures that might be taken to prevent hacking the computers of Americans who work as sys admins for foreign networks. Without such measures, Americans who work on such networks could potentially fall victim to an NSA infiltration attempt.

The NSA declined to answer questions about its efforts to hack system administrators or explain how it ensures Americans are not mistakenly targeted.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2014 at 12:32 pm

“The Social Construction of Sex”: A very clarifying article

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I have to admit I had some confusion about the issues and terms of argument regarding sex and gender, but the Pacific Standard article by Alice Dreger really helped clear things up:

I keep running into smart people who seem to think I believe that sex “isn’t real” because it is all “socially constructed.” Allow me to correct this erroneous social construction of me by summarizing here what I think about sex and gender. I’m tempted to say “what I know about sex and gender” because there are few things I feel as sure about as this.

Testes are real. Ovaries are equally real. They sometimes make real gametes. (I don’t mean to imply they sometimes make fantasy gametes—just that they sometimes don’t make gametes.) Chromosomes and genes are also real. As anyone who’s every forgotten to wear a pad on the right day knows, menstrual blood is real. To the delight of this straight woman, penile erections are real. So are clitoral erections. I’m equally delighted about those. When I say these are “real,” what I mean is that these things have a material existence independent of our ability as humans to notice, study, deny, politicize, or categorize them. I can’t believe I even have to assert this claim, but some academics have gone over the deep end and disagree. (I don’t hang out with such people unless there I have some form of pain killer at the ready.)

So why would I write a book with the phrase medical invention of sex in the title?

Because the way we choose to categorize and delineate males and females (and others) is basically a social decision … a decision some would call a social construction. I might even call it that, if it didn’t lead people to believe I am looped. (That’s why I used “invention” in the book’s title and not “construction,” but I guess the subtlety didn’t work.)

Yes, most men have recognizable penises, scrotums, testes, etc. Most women have recognizable clitorises, labia, vaginas, etc. But some people are born with versions of these organs that are in-between. Most people have either XX or XY chromosomes, though (because of genetic variations) some people have the opposite of what you’d guess from the way their bodies look and/or function, and some people have combinations like XXY or XO or XX/XY. Nature doesn’t care that we humans tend to like discrete categories. The real world is messy. To quote a guy who knew a lot about the fictions of sex, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Can you decide what ultimately makes someone male, female, or other? Practically speaking, sure. That is to say, you can go ahead and make a decision. You won’t be the first. Over time, various scientists, doctors, midwives, grandmothers, judges, etc. have in practice decided who will count as male, female, or other. They’ve decided things like how small a penis has to be before the person attached to it counts as “other” (what we might call intersex). Some Texas judges have decided which chromosome (Y) you have to have to count as male and have to lack to count as female.

But such decisions are based on social need. They lack scientific and intellectual vigor—there are always reasonable objections and exceptions to each attempt. In fact, these decisions keep getting revised, over and over and over again, and I suspect they always will. People want their anatomical categories neat, but nature is (in this metaphor) a slob. We’re an odd couple that way.

In short, while lots of aspects of what we call “sex” are real—so real we can truly say they have been discovered and not constructed—the borders human draw on sex categories are … invented. They are invented like other tools, to do a special job. Sometimes that job is to assign a sex to a kid, sometimes that job is to try to prohibit “same-sex” marriage, sometimes that job is to try to keep Japan’s emperor from becoming an empress.

What, then, about gender?

And what is gender? For those of you who haven’t had Sex/Gender-101, “sex” is a term usually used to talk about biological aspects of males and females, and social scientists sensibly break down “gender” into two basic ideas, “gender roles” and “gender identities.”

“Gender roles” are the parts males and females are expected to play in social settings. Are these “socially constructed”? Sure. The expectation that women will perform more housework and childcare and be paid less at work than men is a social construction in the sense that we find constant social reiterations of these gender-based expectations. The expectation that men will be strong, insensitive, and hornier than women could also be described as a social construction.

But—and here’s a big but—social gender roles may very well be fuzzy manifestations of our ontogeny (individual development, from conception onward) and phylogeny (the evolution of our species). In other words, the plasticized gender role expectations we find in the toy aisles of Target may be like the end of a telephone game where the start is our evolutionary history and our genes.

I think there’s good reason to think this is the case. First off, there’s some pretty good evidence that across almost every (if not every) culture, there is some consistency in gender role expectations. Boys across cultures are expected to—and do—play with toys meant to represent weapons. Girls across cultures are expected to—and do—play with toys that represent cooking and parenting. This doesn’t mean all children meet these expectations (we know they don’t), it just means all cultures seem to share some basic gender expectations.

OK, so maybe we could say “weapon” toys are also toys that represent a form of cooking and parenting—after all, weapons can be used to hunt for food and protect the young—but here we’re getting into the reality versus representation problem. And I think the reality is that there are some consistent patterns in male and female behaviors across cultures. Any feminist mother who has ever seen her carefully-raised three-year-old son pick up a stick and pretend to shoot or sword-play with it, or her carefully-raised three-year-old daughter go into full princess mode, will tell you this. Is it possible these kids learned these things from their culture? Sure, but it’s tough not to notice the persistence of the gender/behavior correlations anecdotally and in good studies.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating we give up on trying to end oppressive gender norms. Just because something may be natural doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to figure out what might be better.

This, then, brings us to the issue of gender identity. Gender identity can be described as the internal feeling of being a boy, girl, man, woman, or something else. Is gender identity socially constructed—that is, are people taught to feel like one or the other?

When I started doing intersex work, I thought so. I thought we were taught to feel, act, and behave like girls and boys. But I don’t think that anymore. That is to say, sure we’re taught these things, but many of us probably get our core gender identities as much from our biological origins as we do from our gender educations. I’ve met too many people who, in spite of careful gender educations—sometimes even intensive gender educations—just clearly felt the gender assigned to them was the wrong one. I’ve also seen a lot of evidence from intersex that prenatal hormone levels correlate with gender-type behaviors, gender identities, and even sexual orientation. (Correlate, not cause! But correlations can be useful clues to causal factors.) I am not one of the people that flips out when . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2014 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Duke Energy Caught Intentionally Dumping 61 Million Gallons Of Coal Waste Into North Carolina Water

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Perhaps it’s time to disincorporate Duke Energy and send its executives to prison. Emily Atkin writes at ThinkProgress:

North Carolina regulators on Thursday cited Duke Energy for illegally and deliberately dumping 61 million gallons of toxic coal ash waste into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water for several cities and towns in the state.

The incident marks the eighth time in less than a month that the company has been accused of violating environmental regulations. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said Duke — notorious for the February Dan River disaster which saw 82,000 tons of coal ash released into state waters — was taking bright blue wastewaterfrom two of its coal ash impoundments and running it through hoses into a nearby canal and drain pipe.

Duke is reportedly permitted to discharge treated wastewater from the ash ponds into the canal, but only if they are filtered through so-called “risers,” pipes that allow heavier residue in the water to settle out. DENR told ABC News on Thursday that Duke’s pumping bypassed the risers.

“We’re concerned with the volume of water that was pumped and the manner it was pumped,” DENR Communications Director Drew Elliot told ABC. “It did not go through the treatment facility as it should have.”

Duke’s most recent incident was discovered after the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance last week released aerial surveillance photos taken from a fixed-wing aircraft that showed Duke workers pumping wastewater from the two toxic coal ash lagoons into a canal.

Waterkeeper Alliance tried to go to the source of the pollution via boat but were warned off by plant employees and a policeman, so they resorted to aerial surveillance, as seen in this clip from the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. . .

Continue reading. There’s more to the story and the video clip is interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2014 at 12:07 pm

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