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Archive for September 19th, 2021

At Rikers Island, Inmates Locked in Showers Without Food and Defecating in Bags

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The US is really amazing. New York City is supposed a city of wealth and culture and represents to much of the world what the US is. In the Intercept Nick Pinto reports on how New York City treats those entrusted to its care:

JAIL OFFICIALS KNEW that state legislators were going to be touring Rikers Island on September 13. But if they made any effort to disguise the degree of degradation and danger that pervades New York City’s jail complex, it didn’t show. Lawmakers and the people who accompanied them returned from their visit visibly shaken.

“There’s a segregated intake unit that we walked through where they have people held in showers,” said Alice Fontier, managing director for Neighborhood Defender Services, who toured one Rikers building, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, with lawmakers. “It’s about 2 feet wide by 6 feet. There is no toilet. They’ve given them plastic bags to use for feces and urine. And they’re sitting in the cells with their own bodily waste locked into these conditions. This is the most horrific thing I’ve seen in my life. I’ve been coming to this jail since 2008. This is unlike anything that has ever happened here.”

Rikers has been a festering wound in New York City for about as long as it has existed as a jail complex. Cut off from the rest of the city by water on all sides and accessible only by a long causeway, New York’s island gulag has always been out of sight and out of mind. Periodically, a snapshot of conditions inside will escape the island’s event horizon, as in 2014 when then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a scathing report describing Rikers as a place “more inspired by ‘Lord of the Flies’ than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”

Bharara’s report helped buttress the movement to close Rikers once and for all, a movement to which Mayor Bill de Blasio was a late joiner in 2017, during his reelection campaign.

Since that time, de Blasio has responded to alarms about conditions on Rikers Island by falling back on his commitment to close the complex — but only closing it sometime years in the future, long after he has left office. The mayor has not visited the island jails at all since winning his second term.

Recent events, though, forced de Blasio to pay closer attention. In the last eight months, 10 people have died in custody on the island, five of them taking their own lives. Covid-19 is once again on the rise on Rikers. On September 10, the chief medical officer on Rikers wrote a letter to New York City Council, warning that “in 2021 we have witnessed a collapse in basic jail operations, such that today I do not believe the City is capable of safely managing the custody of those it is charged with incarcerating in its jails.”

As de Blasio belatedly rolls out a plan for addressing the crisis on Rikers, he is casting responsibility for the condition in his jails variously on the Covid-19 pandemic, prison guards, state government, prosecutors, and the judiciary. But while the unfolding human catastrophe is indeed a tragedy with deep origins and many authors, it is also the predictable conclusion of de Blasio’s own policies and politics.

Even as he has taken credit for the long-term plan to eventually close Rikers, the mayor has embraced a pressure campaign by his police commissioner that seeks to roll back carceral system reforms and re-entrench bail and gratuitous pretrial detention in New York’s criminal system.

In the conscience-shocking crisis on Rikers Island, de Blasio is reaping the whirlwind for his acquiescence to an agenda of mass incarceration.

MUCH OF THE coverage of the crisis on Rikers has focused on a cascading staffing crisis. In recent weeks, accounts circulated of housing units going whole days without any guards at all. By the city government’s estimates, on any given day, fully 35 percent of staff are unavailable to work. On September 15, according to New York City officials, 789 jail employees called in sick, 68 were out for a “personal emergency,” and 93 were simply absent without leave.

As guards sick out, their colleagues find their own working conditions declining even further. Corrections officers increasingly work double, triple, and even quadruple shifts. On many housing units, there are no officers on the floor. The number of assaults — against incarcerated people and staff alike — is going up. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and no paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 4:51 pm

New Evidence of Corruption at Epa Chemicals Division

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Sharon Lerner reports in the Intercept:

Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency have provided The Intercept with new information showing that senior staff have made chemicals appear safer — sometimes dodging restrictions on their use — by minimizing the estimates of how much is released into the environment.

The EPA gauges the potential risk posed by a chemical using two measures: how toxic the agency considers it and how much of the substance the public will likely be exposed to. Whistleblowers from the EPA’s New Chemicals Division have already provided The Intercept with evidence that managers and other officials were pressuring them to assess chemicals to be less toxic than they actually are — and sometimes removing references to their harms from chemical assessments.

Now new documents, including meeting summaries, internal emails, and screenshots from the EPA’s computer system, along with interviews with whistleblowers and other EPA scientists, show that the agency’s New Chemicals Division has avoided calculating the exposure to — and thus the risk posed by — hundreds of chemicals and have repeatedly resisted calls to change that policy even after scientists have shown that it puts the public at risk.

Call It “Negligible”

Since 1995, the EPA has operated under the assumption that chemicals emitted below certain cutoff levels are safe. Whether a toxic chemical is emitted through the smokestacks of an industrial plant, via leaks in its machinery, or from a leaky landfill into groundwater, the agency requires scientists to quantify the precise risk posed by the chemical only if the release (and thus likely human exposure) reaches certain thresholds. If the releases from both smokestacks and leaks are below the thresholds, the chemical is given a pass. In recent years, however, scientists have shown that some of the chemicals allowed onto the market using this loophole do in fact present a danger, particularly to the people living in “fence-line communities” near industrial plants.

In 2018, several EPA scientists became worried that the use of these exposure thresholds could leave the public vulnerable to health risks. Their concern was heightened by an email that a manager in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics sent in October of that year, instructing the scientists to change the language they used to classify chemicals that were exempted from risk calculation because they were deemed to have low exposure levels. Up to that point, they had described them in reports as “below modeling thresholds.” From then on, the manager explained, the scientists were to include the words “expects to be negligible” — a phrase that implies there’s no reason for concern.

Several scientists who worked on calculating chemical risks believed that there was in fact reason for concern and that the use of the thresholds leaves the public vulnerable to health effects, including cancer. And after being instructed to refer to exposures they hadn’t actually measured or modeled as “negligible,” the scientists proposed dropping or lowering the cutoffs and running the calculations for each individual chemical — a task that would add only minutes to the assessment process. But the managers refused to heed their request, which would have not only changed how chemicals were assessed moving forward but would have also had implications for hundreds of assessments in the past.

“They told us that the use of the thresholds was a policy decision and, as such, we could not simply stop applying them,” one of the scientists who worked in the office explained to The Intercept.

The issue resurfaced in May 2020 when a scientist presented the case of a single chemical the agency was then considering allowing onto the market. Although it fell into the “negligible” category using the cutoffs that had been set decades previously, when the scientists calculated the exposure levels using an alternate EPA model, which is designed to gauge the risk of airborne chemicals, it became clear that the chemical did pose a risk of damaging the human nervous system. The chemical is still going through the approval process.

In February, a small group of scientists reviewed the safety thresholds set by the EPA for all of the 368 new chemicals submitted to the agency in 2020. They found that more than half could pose risks even in cases in which the agency had already described exposure as “negligible” and thus had not calculated specific risk. Again, the scientists brought the exposure threshold issue to the attention of managers in the New Chemicals Division, briefing them on their analysis and requesting that the use of the outdated cutoffs be stopped. But they received no response to their proposal. Seven months later, the thresholds remain in use and the risk posed by chemicals deemed to have low exposure levels is still not being calculated and included in chemical assessments, according to EPA scientists who spoke with The Intercept.

The internal struggles over exposure present yet another example of managers and senior staff working to undermine the agency’s mission, according to the EPA scientists. “Our work on new chemicals often felt like an exercise in finding ways to approve new chemicals rather than reviewing them for approval,” said one of two scientists who filed new disclosures to the EPA inspector general on August 31 about the issue. The detailed account of corruption within the New Chemicals Division that four whistleblowers previously submitted to members of Congress, the EPA inspector general, and The Intercept also included information on the ongoing problems caused by the use of the exposure thresholds.”

“It all comes down to money,” said Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, the organization representing the whistleblowers, who pointed out that risk values above the agency’s accepted cutoffs require the EPA to impose limits that may make a chemical harder to use — and sell. “Companies don’t want warning labels, they don’t want restrictions.”

It’s unclear why some senior staff and managers within the EPA’s New Chemicals Division seem to feel an obligation not to burden the companies they regulate with restrictions. “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Bennett, who pointed out that EPA staffers may enhance their post-agency job prospects within the industry if they stay in the good graces of chemical companies. She also noted that managers’ performance within the division is assessed partly based on how many chemicals they approve. “The bean counting is driving their actions,” said Bennett. “The performance metrics should be, how many chemicals did you prevent from going onto the market, rather than how many did you get onto the market.”

In response to questions about this story, the EPA  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and no paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 4:42 pm

Transparent wood material could be the window of tomorrow

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Interesting idea — and clearly a window of glass made from wood would be a better insulator than a (single-pane) glass window. Ashwini Sakharkar writes in Inceptive Mind:

While the smartphone industry is mastering flexible screens, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researcher Junyong Zhu in co-collaboration with colleagues from the University of Maryland and the University of Colorado, has developed a transparent wood material that can be used in a variety of industries. This material is seen as a potential replacement for the glass currently used in construction in nearly every way.

New transparent material looks like glass, but it is made entirely of wood. It is made from the wood of the Balsa tree: – a tree of the flowering plant family that grows very fast and can reach a height of 30 m. Its wood has been widely used in fields such as model assembly, packaging, insulation, and floating equipment. The wood of this species is treated at room temperature, oxidizing in a special bleaching bath that bleaches it of nearly all visibility. The wood is then penetrated with a synthetic polymer called polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), creating a product that is virtually transparent.

Wood becomes transparent, like glass, but it also has the properties of plastic – it bends upon impact and crumbles like wood instead of breaking into sharp pieces like glass. According to the developers, the new material is stronger than ordinary glass, safer, more economical, and more efficient in terms of thermal protection.

The researcher team also noted in their paper that heat easily transfers through the conventional glass, especially single pane, and amounts to higher energy bills when it escapes during cold weather and pours in when it’s warm. Glass production in construction also comes with a heavy carbon footprint. Replacing conventional glass with wood glass can significantly reduce energy consumption and CO2 emission. The process of making new materials is also more environmentally friendly.

At present, the researchers are focusing primarily on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 10:43 am

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