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- 03/04/15--08:38: _Obamacare challenge...
- 03/04/15--10:04: _ Workplace injury, ...
- 03/04/15--15:44: _Hillary readies for...
- 03/05/15--07:30: _NFL lawyers tacklin...
- 03/09/15--10:49: _If Obamacare critic...
- 03/11/15--15:18: _U.S. efforts to ste...
- 03/11/15--13:21: _Duke Energy fined $...
- 03/12/15--11:22: _Flagship military u...
- 03/12/15--13:22: _From rural Utah to ...
- 03/13/15--02:00: _Feds were advised o...
- 03/14/15--09:00: _South Africa rebuff...
- 03/14/15--11:31: _The assault on Peli...
- 03/16/15--06:41: _Consumers getting '...
- 03/16/15--15:30: _America remains top...
- 03/17/15--02:00: _Texas aligns itself...
- 03/17/15--12:01: _South African who a...
- 03/17/15--13:45: _Battle over smog st...
- 03/17/15--19:17: _Aaron Schock still ...
- 03/18/15--06:53: _Surprise at the dip...
- 03/19/15--19:19: _Meet the top politi...
- 03/04/15--08:38: Obamacare challenged in Supreme Court, but the states did it first
- 03/04/15--15:44: Hillary readies for journalism event
- 03/05/15--07:30: NFL lawyers tackling political concerns
- 03/11/15--13:21: Duke Energy fined $25.1 million for groundwater damage from coal ash
- 03/13/15--02:00: Feds were advised of Medicare Advantage overcharges years ago
- 03/14/15--11:31: The assault on Pelindaba
- 03/16/15--06:41: Consumers getting 'skinned' by health insurers
- 03/16/15--15:30: America remains top arms seller to the world
- 03/17/15--13:45: Battle over smog standard heats up, with dueling arguments over cost
- 03/17/15--19:17: Aaron Schock still gets taxpayer-funded pension
- 03/18/15--06:53: Surprise at the diplomatic discord between Washington and Pretoria
All eyes are on the U.S. Supreme Court today as it considers partisan arguments over Obamacare, but in states legislatures across the country, the Affordable Care Act issue is no less a hot-button issue.
The Supreme Court case, King v. Burwell, focuses on subsidies paid to millions of Americans who purchased health insurance through exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act. At issue: whether subsidies issued through exchanges operated by the federal government are legal, since the law refers to exchanges run by “the state.” Later this year the justices will issue a ruling, which could either uphold the law as it now operates or strike down those subsidies for good.
State lawmakers nationwide also are weighing in largely along partisan lines, as the Center reported in January. Bills concerning health care exchanges are pending in at least 16 states. The measures, all introduced this year, are split pretty evenly between ones that seek to bolster insurance exchanges and those that would impede their progress or bar them for good, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL.
Many of the proposals hinge on the outcome of the Supreme Court case. For instance a bill introduced in Indiana by Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat, simply requires the state Department of Insurance to "design, implement, and administer the Indiana health exchange in accordance with federal law."
In Tennessee, a bill by State Rep. Harold M. Love, Jr., a Democrat, only goes into effect if the court decides that the Internal Revenue Service may not extend tax credit subsidies. His bill seeks to guarantee them.
State Rep. Jeremy Durham , a Tennessee Republican, sees the issue through a different prism. His bill says if the Supreme Court allows subsidies state residents "may ignore the insurance mandate" while businesses "may be excused from penalties for not offering health insurance coverage, and a business could move employees back to full-time work who had been transferred to part-time status in order to avoid health insurance costs.”
The Center for Public Integrity story reported that state lawmakers have been at odds over hundreds of bills to either cripple or prop up the Affordable Care Act. More than 700 Obamacare bills have landed in state hoppers over the past two years. The Center’s analysis showed that dozens of the bills took their cues from activists groups on both sides of the debate, from staunch opponents with ties to tea party activists to “progressive” groups seeking to expand Obamacare’s reach.
Workers and taxpayers writ large are shouldering the costs of workplace injuries and illnesses, as the changing nature of work leaves states and employers with increasingly less liability, according to a report released today by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The OSHA report, “Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job,” notes that employer-provided workers’ compensation insurance benefits cover only 21 percent of the actual costs of a workplace injury or illness, including lost wages, medical expenses and rehabilitation.
Only a fraction of workers apply for or receive benefits, the report says, because of job insecurity, fear of retaliation from employers, or because they don’t know they’re entitled to such benefits. As many as 97 percent of work-related illnesses go uncompensated because symptoms are often linked to workplace exposures long after employment ends, if they are linked at all.
Most of the costs of injuries and illnesses are borne by workers themselves, according to the report. Government programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicaid cover 16 percent, private health insurance 13 percent.
“By forcing the costs of injury and illness onto workers, their families and the taxpayer, unsafe employers have fewer incentives to eliminate workplace hazards and actually prevent injuries and illnesses from occurring,” the report says. “Under this broken system, these workers, their families and the taxpayer subsidize unsafe employers, increasing the likelihood that even more workers will be injured or made sick.”
The vulnerability is more pronounced in the modern workplace where contract and temporary workers who are often misclassified or assigned to new workplaces more frequently. Employers are often not responsible for insuring temporary workers– that falls to staffing agencies – meaning there’s little incentive to invest in training. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that even as workplace deaths declined overall in 2013, deaths among contract workers and Hispanic workers increased.
The report holds relevance for the middle class: even with workers’ compensation benefits, OSHA found, injured workers earn roughly $31,000 less over a 10-year period than they would have if they hadn’t been injured.
The Center for Public Integrity spoke with David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, about the report’s findings.
CPI: The OSHA report says fewer than 40 percent of eligible workers apply for workers comp benefits. What needs to change in order for injured or sick employees to take advantage of the safety net to which they are entitled?
Michaels: Workers with workplace illnesses rarely apply. That’s often because the illnesses occur much later. And doctors don’t make that diagnosis, but even if they do, if a worker is eligible for other health care, medical coverage, they often prefer to get that rather than go through the workers’ compensation medical coverage which is often difficult and demeaning. So that would have to change. In some states, musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel are excluded or very limited in coverage, and so workers just don’t apply because they know they’ll never win. But even for obvious workplace cases, where there are injuries and the injury was caused at work, a large proportion of workers don’t apply for workers’ compensation. I think they look at the system as being a difficult one to maneuver in. There’s been a real attempt to label people who get workers compensation as slackers. And so there’s a stigmatization of getting workers compensation that is totally wrong, and there’s very little evidence that there’s slacking or fraud in workers compensation.
CPI: Low-wage workers tend to face extra barriers in filing for workers’ compensation - greater job insecurity or language barriers, for example. How can those barriers be overcome?
Michaels: I think it’s extremely important for everybody involved in the workers’ compensation system to recognize that until those barriers are eliminated, the system won’t work. There are programs around the country – workers’ centers and others that are helping workers apply for workers’ compensation. The challenge they face, though, is low-wage workers are always afraid for their jobs. And as long as they have that fear, they’re going to be hesitant to apply for workers’ compensation. I think immigration reform will help this and President Obama’s effort to ensure that workers who are here are able to stay here and come out of the shadows will allow a lot of workers who are getting injured now to apply for workers’ compensation and not fear having immigration called on them.
CPI: Despite an overall decrease in work-related deaths, the number of contractors and Hispanic workers killed on the job has increased. Can you explain why?
Michaels: Non-English speaking workers certainly are at greater risk. Worker who don’t have legal status in the United States are more vulnerable because they feel they can’t complain. We’ve been in situations where a worker’s been hurt and we ask an employer, ‘Why wasn’t that worker trained in how to do that job safely?’ They said, ‘Well, the worker doesn’t speak English.’ We tell employers, ‘If you hire a worker and you have to train them, you have to train them in a language and vocabulary that they understand.’
CPI: What’s driving the changes in state workers’ compensation programs that force workers to shoulder these costs alone in some cases?
Michaels: This race to the bottom is being driven by employers in every state who see an opportunity to have lower costs. They point to neighboring states because they give greater benefits to workers who are injured. So if we want to compete for employers to move to our state, we have to lower our cost. I haven’t seen studies that actually show that employers move because of workers’ compensation costs, but it’s an excuse that’s being made. So I think state legislatures around the country are looking at this and just cutting back on benefits the workers receive.
CPI: Can we expect to see changes in who bears the cost of workplace injuries and illnesses? What would it take to bring about such changes?
Michaels: Right now, certainly, the trend is in the wrong direction. Until that is reversed, the costs of workplace injuries and illnesses will be shifted to workers’ families and taxpayers. And so [state legislatures are] going to have to look at the functioning of their workers’ compensation systems and see that the way they work currently is very much unfair and penalizes the victims of the injuries rather than the employers who are responsible for preventing the injuries from occurring.
CPI: The OSHA report notes that as more dangerous jobs are outsourced to temporary workers to save employers money, there’s a diminishing incentive to invest in proper training and safe working conditions. What will it take for employers to stop using temporary workers as a way to cut costs and avoid taking adequate safety measures?
Michaels: OSHA’s position is all workers deserve protection, and it’s the responsibility of all employers to provide a safe workplace. And if all workers are protected, then we don’t have to worry about who’s bearing the costs, and that’s really been our focus. We have an alliance with the American Staffing Association providing information on what we call recommended practices for when most employers hire temporary workers. There are rules they have to follow. And that information is getting out. We treat the host employer and the staffing agency as joint employers. They’re both responsible for making sure all workers in the workplace are safe.
Ready or not, Hillary Clinton is still scheduled to headline a political journalism award ceremony this month in Washington, D.C. — where she'll face reporters who in recent weeks have written story after story detailing her potentiallyillegalemail habits and her charitable foundation's controversialfunding sources.
Organizers of 2015 Toner Prize Celebration, named for late New York Times political reporter Robin Toner, say Clinton's recent stringofcontroversies have not affected her participation at the March 23 gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While Clinton has previouslyreceived six-figure speaking fees at college sponsored events, transferring the money to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, "she's doing this one pro bono," Toner's husband, Peter Gosselin, confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity.
"It's going to stop being an awards ceremony if she makes any news — everyone will exit the room and start writing," Gosselin joked. "Journalists will be journalists."
Toner and Gosselin came to know Clinton during their many years reporting on politics, and Gosselin asked her to headline this year's award dinner, he said.
Previous winners of the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting include Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker and Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic.
The award ceremony is sponsored by Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where Toner attended college.
The prize "recognizes the best national or local political reporting in any medium or on any platform."
In a January press release announcing Clinton's participation, Newhouse School Dean Lorraine Branham said, “It’s an extraordinary pleasure to have Secretary Clinton as our speaker at this important event ... she is a vivid example — like Robin — of a pioneering woman at the top of her profession.”
Last September, when Cynthia Hogan began quarterbacking the National Football League’s Washington, D.C., office, the league was suffering through a spate of disastrous headlines — the Ray Rice domestic violence case, concussion concerns and grumbling over its tax-exempt status, among other matters.
So she called in the NFL’s lawyers to review its previous plays.
Hogan, herself a lawyer and former counsel to Vice President Joe Biden, ordered up a “top-to-bottom review” of the NFL’s political action committee by the league's outside lawyers because she was new to the league, said Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman.
Aiello also said Hogan wanted to make sure the NFL’s political action committee, which donates money directly to political candidates, was following best practices and providing “in-depth briefings and her and her staff” on PAC operations.
The legal review wasn’t free — nowhere close — and the NFL was slow to pay its bills.
The NFL’s PAC owed law firm Covington & Burling nearly $33,000 in outstanding invoices at the end of 2014, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Aiello said the firm’s bill has since been paid, and the review prompted only “housekeeping changes” and rearranging personnel.
Comparatively, the NFL PAC paid Covington & Burling less than $10,000 during 2013, federal records show. The legal bills came during a two-year election cycle when the NFL’s PAC, known as Gridiron PAC, gave less money to federal candidates than it ever has — $330,750, compared to more than $500,000 during the 2010 midterm election cycle.
The money was split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
The NFL also spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying spending.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, nowhere will the effect be more stark than along the 400-mile border between two states my family has called home, Tennessee and Kentucky.
In the state where I grew up, Tennessee, thousands of people would in all likelihood be forced back into the ranks of the uninsured. That’s because the cost of coverage would quickly skyrocket for the 230,000 Tennesseans enrolled in a health plan this year through the insurance exchange that’s operating there.
In Kentucky, where we lived when I worked for Humana Inc., it doesn’t matter what the Supreme Court does. No one there is facing the threat of suddenly finding their coverage unaffordable.
Kentucky is one of the 16 states (and the District of Columbia) that decided to establish and operate its own exchange. Tennessee, on the other hand, is one of the 34 states that defaulted to the federal government to operate its exchange.
The plaintiffs in King v. Burwell argued before the high court last Wednesday that because of the way the Affordable Care Act is worded, the Obama Administration is breaking the law by providing subsidies to people in those 34 states to help them buy health insurance. Their argument is that the law allows subsidies only for enrollees in an exchange “established by the state.” If the Court agrees, the subsidies for folks in exchanges operated by the federal government could come to an abrupt end as early as mid-summer.
Kentucky is also one of 29 states to have expanded its Medicaid program under the ACA. That means that folks earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level—about $16,000 for an individual and about $33,000 for a family of four—are now eligible for Medicaid in Kentucky. The federal government pays 100 percent of the cost of the expanded coverage through next year. After that, the state will begin paying a portion of the cost, up to a maximum of 10 percent.
But to the south, many poor people remain uninsured because lawmakers in Tennessee have repeatedly refused to expand the state’s Medicaid program, called TennCare. Their first refusal came right after the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the federal government couldn’t force the states to expand their Medicaid programs. Legislators again voted against a Medicaid expansion just last month, even though Republican Gov. Bill Haslam favored it.
Before Kentucky expanded its Medicaid program, the Bluegrass State had a considerably higher uninsured rate than Tennessee. Now it has a much lower rate. The Medicaid expansion in Kentucky, coupled with the availability of federal money to help other low- and moderate-income people buy coverage, brought the uninsured rate in Kentucky down from 20.4 percent of residents 18 and older in 2013 to 9.8 percent in 2014, according to Gallup. That was one of the biggest drops in the country.
In Tennessee, the uninsured rate has also fallen, but only because the federal government has been up to now providing subsidies to many of the state’s low- and moderate income residents. The uninsured rate in the Volunteer State stood at 15.1 percent in 2014, down from 16.8 percent in 2013. The decline obviously would have been much larger had the state expanded its Medicaid program.
If the Supreme Court rules that the government cannot continue providing subsidies to folks in the states with federally operated exchanges, the uninsured rate undoubtedly will go back to what it was in 2013 if not higher. More than 80 percent of Tennesseans who bought coverage on the state’s exchange receive subsidies. Most of them would have difficulty making their monthly premium payments if the subsidies evaporate.
The insurance industry warned the court in an amicus brief that an end to the subsidies would destabilize the health insurance market in the 34 states, causing premiums to rise rapidly and setting the stage for a “death spiral” that would make coverage unaffordable for all but a state’s most affluent residents.
The industry’s largest trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, predicted in its brief that the uninsured rate would likely be even higher than it was before the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010.
During the court’s hearing last week, Justice Samuel Alito dismissed AHIP’s concern and suggested that a court decision in favor of the plaintiffs would be no big deal, that states would just start operating their own exchanges.
“It's not too late for a state to establish an exchange,” he said. “So going forward, there would be no harm.”
While the political will might exist in a few of the 34 states to go about setting up an exchange, Tennessee likely wouldn’t be among them. In fact, Tennessee State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, recently introduced a bill that would prevent the state from setting up its own exchange.
So while Tennessee lawmakers continue to do all they can to undermine Obamacare, low- and moderate-income Kentuckians can go to bed at night and not have the same worry that their neighbors a few miles to the south have about the cost of health care.
Does that make sense to you?
Correction, March 11, 2015 6:12 p.m.:An earlier version of this story stated there are nine nations that don't have nuclear weapons but have enough fuel to build one. There are 10 such nations.
Since the start of the Manhattan Project in 1942, the world has accumulated 1,875 tons of nuclear explosive materials, the equivalent of tens of thousands of enormously powerful bombs. An estimated 25 countries hold these materials today at hundreds of sites, sometimes in facilities with questionable security.
Terrorists could engineer a devastating attack against a civilian population or a large military installation merely by gaining access to a few pounds of these materials, because the designs of simple nuclear weapons are no longer secret. A stock of enriched uranium the size of a six-pack is all they would need to fuel a crude bomb as powerful as the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.
Anxious officials in the United States have sought as a result to eliminate or at least better secure stocks of nuclear explosive materials around the world, with mixed results.
Some governments have balked at reducing or eliminating their stocks, arguing that the materials are important economic assets they have a right to keep. Some have resisted adopting stringent standards for securing their nuclear explosives, saying that rigorous precautions are unnecessary, too expensive and a barrier to the development of peaceful nuclear programs.
The United States, meanwhile, has mismanaged some of its domestic efforts to secure or reduce its own stockpile of nuclear explosive materials.
The Center for Public Integrity has been investigating the global effort to control dangerous nuclear explosives. Our aim is to shine a light on the gravest risks today, and on secretive but sometimes unsuccessful efforts to secure these materials.
We’ve already published two sets of stories in this project, and a third series is scheduled to be published next week. In the initial pieces, we examined the financial, technical and political problems that afflict a longstanding U.S. and Russian plan to destroy 68 tons of surplus, Cold War-era weapons plutonium.
The second series detailed controversy over Japan’s construction of one of the world’s largest plutonium factories, a facility producing materials with no immediate use. U.S. officials have complained privately that the site is not adequately protected from a terrorist assault.
Here is a primer on this topic in anticipation of the third series of articles:
The Obama administration has since 2009 devoted significant attention to enhancing the security of nuclear materials, an initiative the President hailed as the best way of addressing “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” He’d promised as a candidate that all vulnerable materials would be locked up by the end of his first presidential term. So is this really still a problem?
The White House effort — which built on a Bush administration program launched in 2004 — has substantially reduced the number of countries that hold threatening fissile materials. Under U.S. prodding, from 2012 to last year alone, seven countries completely eliminated all stocks of their weapons materials.
But nine nuclear weapons states still hold enormous stockpiles, and ten more nations that don’t have nuclear weapons still have enough fuel to build one. The White House has focused on civilian stocks of highly-enriched uranium, rather than on the much larger and more politically sensitive military stocks. And the administration has paid less attention to reducing global stockpiles of plutonium, which are large and growing.
So where is this material, for the most part?
More than 90 percent of the world’s highly-enriched uranium and plutonium are still held by Russia and the United States.
Together, these two countries have about 1,460 tons of the stuff. And that’s what remains after Russia converted 500 tons of highly-enriched uranium into benign reactor fuel, and sold it to the United States for $17 billion — in perhaps the most successful nuclear nonproliferation program ever attempted.
Other weapons states — France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — also hold large stocks of nuclear explosives for both civilian and military use. South Africa and Pakistan built their own factories for such explosives based to varying degrees on foreign designs.
Japan has an immense plutonium stockpile it says it needs for a civilian reactor program that won’t be completed for decades. Germany, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Poland, Italy, Netherlands and Belarus also have enough fissile material to build at least one nuclear bomb.
How did these countries get hold of their nuclear explosives in the first place?
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council —the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain —all built nuclear weapons of their own before they declared that membership in the club should be closed.
Until the 1970s, the United States and Russia also helped smaller, non-nuclear weapons countries build research reactors and supplied weapons-usable uranium to fuel them. But after India built its first nuclear explosive under cover of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program, Washington’s policy changed.
Since then, the United States has been trying to retrieve the estimated 23 tons of highly-enriched uranium it exported to 35 countries under the program – most of it to France, Germany and Canada. Fifteen of those countries have returned all their U.S.-supplied weapons-grade uranium , including South Africa and Austria, but about 6.1 tons remain at 40 locations in 20 countries, according to a May 2014 Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report.
The United States has also helped support Russian efforts to retrieve the 11 tons it exported to that nation’s allies, mostly in Eastern Europe, under a similar scheme.
Why are some countries resisting better protections for their stocks of fissile materials, when the risks of a catastrophe seem so large?
Many countries don’t take the threat of nuclear terrorism as seriously as the United States, and some regard the prospect of a band of militants building an improvised nuclear bomb as something from a sci-fi movie.
Some also see themselves as unlikely targets of any nuclear terrorism and are reluctant to invest substantial sums to curb what they consider to be a distant threat.
Still others may see their holdings of nuclear explosive materials as a kind of insurance policy -- something that could one day be converted into weaponry if international conditions change and they feel newly threatened.
What’s the United States doing about its own fissile material stockpile?
The United States struck a deal with Russia in 2000 that calls for converting 34 tons of its weapons plutonium into reactor fuel, in exchange for that country doing the same. But Russia has decided to burn its plutonium in new reactors that are capable of efficiently producing more plutonium. The U.S. program to turn its own plutonium into reactor fuel was supposed to cost $1 billion, but the actual pricetag will more likely total $35 billion over the next 20 years, according to a government estimate last year. So far, none of the plutonium has been converted, and Washington hasn’t settled on a clear, new path forward.
The Department of Energy has done a better job reducing its stock of surplus weapons-grade uranium, turning 143 metric tons of it into a form can’t readily be converted to bomb fuel.
So what's your next series of stories about?
Please tune in next week.
North Carolina officials have slapped Duke Energy with the state’s largest-ever penalty for environmental damages, fining the utility $25.1 million for groundwater contamination caused by coal ash — the subject of a previous Center for Public Integrity investigation.
The unprecedented fine, announced March 10 by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, resulted from unsafe levels of such contaminants as boron, thallium, selenium and arsenic — in some cases, for nearly five years — in groundwater from coal ash ponds at the Sutton Plant, near Wilmington. The fine followed violations cited by the state environmental agency at the now-shuttered Duke facility in August 2014.
In a statement, DENR Secretary Donald van der Vaart described the enforcement action as part of an “aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash.”
“In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state,” he said, “we are also moving expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide.”
Coal ash is a byproduct of electric power generation. One of the nation’s largest refuse streams totaling 136 million tons a year, coal ash has fouled water supplies, endangered public health and threatened communities across the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself has recognized as many as 160 “damage” cases in which coal ash from ponds, landfills and other dumpsites have contaminated nearby aquifers, streams, rivers and lakes or tainted the air, including in North Carolina.
In a series of stories starting in 2009, the Center for Public Integrity highlighted the environmental and human health consequences of coal ash.
Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility, owns and operates 32 coal ash ponds at 14 power plants throughout North Carolina. Last year, a Duke coal ash pond spewed 39,000 tons of waste into the Dan River, prompting state legislators to pass a law in September requiring the utility to close all of its ash ponds by 2029.
Last month, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Duke because of that spill — among the nation’s biggest involving coal ash — accusing the company of violating the federal Clean Water Act.
In December, the EPA unveiled the first-ever national standards regulating the disposal of coal ash at 1,425 coal ash ponds and landfills in 37 states across the country. Under the EPA’s rule, new and existing ash ponds and landfills will face requirements that dozens of states have failed to put in place on their own, such as groundwater monitoring and protective liners for coal ash ponds.
At the time, environmental advocates cited the North Carolina coal-ash law as far more stringent.
Duke Energy has 30 days to respond to the DENR fine.
Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle was deep in the Colombian mountains in the autumn of 1997, directing an Army brigade in a major offensive against a group that Washington formally designated that year as terrorists, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He achieved some battlefield successes, and five years later, he was appointed chief of the Colombian Armed Forces.
Flash forward to earlier this month: Ospina Ovalle was in a military classroom in Washington, lecturing at the National Defense University to an elite group of U.S. and foreign military officers and civilians from a podium set before a row of Latin American flags. Colleagues at the school, which is chartered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say Ospina Ovalle is particularly respected there for his experience under fire and his deep knowledge of counterterrorism strategy.
In recent weeks, however, a less heroic portrayal of Ospina’s past has caught up with him, provoking controversy over his presence in the United States among lawmakers on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration, and new expressions of concern from Washington’s community of Latin American specialists.
The controversy concerns allegations that back in 1997, Ospina’s Fourth Brigade allowed a pro-government militia to sack the village of El Aro in northern Colombia, brutally killing several people, including some children, and leaving others missing. One shopkeeper was tied to a tree, had his eyes gouged out, and his tongue removed, according to witness reports at the time cited by human rights investigators. Dozens of homes were destroyed, and more than a thousand cattle were stolen.
The controversy also concerns whether the National Defense University, the nation’s premier joint military educational institution, adequately vets its hires from foreign forces for potential involvement in human rights abuses. State Department officials have privately protested its apparent lack of diligence, and the Pentagon may soon be changing its procedures, according to multiple government sources.
“Reports that NDU hired foreign military officers with histories of involvement in human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings of civilians, are stunning, and they are repulsive,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity. Leahy is the author of the “Leahy Law” prohibiting U.S. assistance to military units and members of foreign security forces that violate human rights.
“I have sought, and have yet to receive, an explanation from the Defense Department,” said Leahy, whose aides began discussing NDU’s hiring of Ospina and several other controversial foreign military officers with Obama administration officials after inquiries by the Center for Public Integrity. “We need to know whether any such individuals remain at NDU or in the United States, and what guidance is in place to ensure that this does not happen again.”
A spokesman for the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, said he could not comment immediately for this story but that defense officials were preparing a response.
The NDU Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, where Ospina Ovalle taught from 2006 to 2014 before moving to another academic center at the university’s campus in Washington, D.C., has itself been rocked by controversy in recent years. A nonpublic report in 2012 by a U.S. Army colonel, appointed by the Center’s director in response to persistent staff complaints, concluded that “a hostile work environment exists”; that its staff had displayed “a lack of sensitivity towards the use of derogatory language”; and many employees felt its leaders routinely retaliated against those who questioned them.
The report, obtained by CPI under the Freedom of Information Act, depicted a sort of frat-house atmosphere at the Center. It stated that staff had exchanged “racially charged emails” — including one directed at President Barack Obama; used offensive language such as “faggot,” “buttboy” and “homo”; and that “women employees feel that they are treated inappropriately.” Even senior leaders used “inappropriate hand gestures,” it said, and mentioned simulations of masturbation.
Ospina Ovalle, in a telephone call from his NDU office this week, said he decided late last year to retire from the university when the semester ends in two months, and return to Colombia because — he said — he misses it. He said accusations that the Fourth Brigade played any role in the El Aro massacre were false and that “we’ve been cleared.” He said he only found out about it after the carnage was over, from the head of a battalion under his command.
“The FARC wore the same uniforms as the army, so people would assume that they were the army,” he said. The region that his brigade of roughly 2,000 soldiers patrolled included 125 municipalities, and it was woefully underequipped, he said, so he usually did not have timely intelligence about what was happening in the region.
Colombia’s attorney general looked into the allegations about Ospina in 2001 and did not find proof of the Army’s involvement in the El Aro events. But a report in 2006 by the Inter-American Commission on Human rights, an investigative tribunal affiliated with the 35-nation Organization of American States, concluded that “the participation and acquiescence” of the Colombian Army in the paramilitary actions at El Aro and the theft of livestock by “agents of the state” were demonstrated.
“There is no doubt,” said Adam Isacson, director of the regional security program at the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group, that Ospina Ovalle “did nothing to stop that massacre from happening." Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, in reports published in 2000 and 2001, respectively, both cited extensive ties between paramilitaries involved in the El Aro massacre and the Fourth Brigade under Ospina Ovalle’s command. “Among the cases in which Ospina is implicated” is the Oct. 1997 event, the Amnesty report states.
Jim Zackrison, a former intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence and scholar at the NDU’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, said to the contrary that in his view, the Colombian had enormous charisma and “was the last guy you would find participating in a massacre.”
Zackrison said he invited Ospina Ovalle to speak to his son’s Boy Scout troop, and that the former Armed Forces commander regaled them with a story about “the time he took a bullet for the president” and an account of military strategy while the boys walked along the Gettysburg trail. He said he recalls Ospina Ovalle telling a classroom of NDU students on another occasion that 90 percent of the time, confessions derived from torture will lead interrogators down false paths.
But human rights officials at the State Department consider these groups’ allegations about Ospina Ovalle’s involvement in the El Aro incident credible, according to multiple sources.
The department looked into Ospina Ovalle’s record after inquiries were made by Leahy, a senior government official said, and has serious concerns about his hiring and the absence of appropriate NDU review beforehand. The official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said that it seems “there are cases that slip through the cracks” because NDU is not “plugged into a daily conversation” about foreign policy and human rights.
Ospina Ovalle is not the first NDU lecturer to be accused in recent years of involvement in serious human rights abuses.
A former Brigadier in the Chilean Army, Jaime Garcia Covarrubias, taught courses from 2001 until 2013 on security strategy and democratic leadership, according to NDU documents listing him as a professor in the William Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, named after the former U.S. defense secretary. The Center is considered a teaching arm of the U.S. Southern Command.
An NDU promotional video in Oct. 2011 shows Covarrubias standing before a group of students in a red bow tie and describes him as the teacher of a course in Advanced Civil-Political-Military Relations. Former colleagues described him as part of the school’s inner circle of administrators and faculty members, who held unusual sway over its policymaking.
Internal alarms were initially raised about Garcia Covarrubias by others at NDU in 2008, who cited published allegations that he worked for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s secret police at a base where prisoners were allegedly murdered. But the school’s administrators undertook no investigation of their own at the time, according to documents and interviews.
Garcia Covarrubias was hired “with the approval and full consultation of the U.S. embassy in Santiago,” said Dennis Caffrey, who was dean of students and administration at the time. He said that to his knowledge, the claims swirling around Garcia Covarrubias are only unproven “accusations.”
Regional press reports in 2010 and 2013 said that Garcia Covarrubias had been accused by prisoners and witnesses of beatings and torture. A former prisoner at Garcia Covarrubias’ regimental base in the southern city of Temuco, Herman Carrasco, told an appeals court there in Sept. 2010 that Covarrubias “forced us to perform naked acts of sodomy, without success,” according to an article published that year by the Spanish news agency EFE.
Finally, in 2013, a Chilean judge indicted Garcia Covarrubias for first-degree murder in 1973 of seven political prisoners at his Temuco base, and barred Garcia Covarrubias from leaving the country. The bodies of the prisoners had been thrown into a river, and Garcia Covarrubias and his colleagues at the base told others they were killed while trying to attack the guards, according to a news report on his indictment by the Chilean newspaper Cooperativa.
At the time of the killings, Washington was tightly allied with the Chilean government. A diplomatic cable several days later to the Secretary of State by a senior U.S. diplomat, Jack B. Kubisch, mentioned the deaths of “seven leftists…on a military post in a Southern city” as a failed “leftist initiative.” Kubisch served as NDU’s vice president from 1977 to 1979, and on an advisory board to its Board of Visitors in 1982, according to a university spokesman. He died in 2007.
The Chilean judge’s 2013 travel prohibition blocked Garcia Covarrubias’ return to NDU, and provoked scattered attention in Western media. When questioned by a reporter at Foreign Policy magazine, an unnamed NDU spokesman effectively disowned him, saying Garcia Covarrubias was technically not “an employee of the National Defense University” but a civilian employee of the Office of the Secretary of Defense “with the Defense Security Cooperation Agency serving as the Executive Agent. His current appointment ends on February 25, 2014.”
A senior U.S. government official said that after looking closely at Garcia Covarrubias’ record in recent days, we “found many links to torture allegations, from multiple open sources” as well as from nonpublic sources, which government experts considered credible. The official expressed frustration about Garcia Covarrubias’ hiring by NDU, explaining that “it is not that difficult to do the kind of vetting that would have caught these cases. There is a secret system we set up….It’s called Google.”
Garcia Covarrubias did not reply to questions emailed by the Center for Public Integrity to his published address. But his lawyers in Chile in 2013, José Luis López Blanco and José Alejandro Martínez Ríos, said in a court document that “in his military career, our client distinguished himself from his beginnings in the Military School until his promotion to the rank of Brigadier, and his later retirement from the Army as a very distinguished official.” Despite the fact that the investigation into “possible crimes committed at the Tucapel Regiment” had gone on for years, they added, “there has not been any evidence that permits Brigadier Garcia to be charged as the perpetrator responsible for any crime.” Lopez Blanco did not respond to questions emailed to the address listed on his website.
Garcia Covarrubias and Ospina Ovalle are both graduates of the U.S. military’s School of the Americas, a U.S. Army school for Latin American military personnel that closed in 2000 following years of criticism that it had advocated torture in training materials and graduated some of the region’s most notorious dictators, including Manuel Noriega of Panama and Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina.
As a teenage cadet in the mid-1960s, Ospina Ovalle attended an orientation course at the School, according to a database compiled by School of the Americas Watch, an advocacy group. The organization seeks to permanently close the school, which reopened in 2001 under a new name: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, based at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Garcia Covarrubias took the School’s course “Combat Arms Orientation O-37” in 1970, according to the School of the Americas Watch database.
NDU has close ties to the Institute: A former director of the Perry Center in the last decade was one of the founders of the Institute, and a former deputy director of the Perry Center was an executive liaison there before joining the Center’s administration. Delegations from the schools routinely visit one another, and honor each other with awards such as the “Dr. William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education.”
Sen. Leahy’s amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, introduced in 1997 and enacted into law in 2008, requires recipients of State Department assistance or Defense Department-funded training programs for foreign security forces to be vetted through an internal State Department database, and bars assistance to individuals credibly charged with "a gross violation of human rights.”
Several government officials said that NDU officials had not interpreted the law as applying to candidates for teaching jobs and as a result did not submit the candidates to the State Department for appropriate review. That policy, they said, is presently under Pentagon review.
RANDLETT, Utah — Mountains sweep up from a landscape of red dirt and brown scrub. Pump jacks nod, pulling oil and gas from the ground. Deer dart toward a river. Trucks swish by, a few at a time, past the Ute Indian reservation.
It’s an unlikely place to find ozone levels that sometimes rival those of smoggy Los Angeles.
Too-high ozone, it turns out, bedevils communities across the United States. It’s not limited to the urban centers that have struggled for decades to reduce the lung-damaging air pollutant, created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds bake in the sun.
There’s ozone above the federal standard in smaller cities such as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Middletown, Connecticut. Because the stuff doesn’t stay put, it’s often worse in suburbs than car-clogged downtowns. And it’s over the threshold in parts of the Mountain West, exactly where you’d expect the air would be cleanest.
But even that fails to capture the full picture. For almost a decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s independent scientific advisory committee of researchers and doctors has said the nation’s ozone standard is too lenient, a point of view backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health groups.
That means people in a wide swath of the country breathe air that doesn’t violate any rules — and thus doesn’t trigger any warnings — and yet, according to research, is unhealthy. That’s particularly true for the young, the elderly, people with lung diseases and outdoor workers. As ozone rises, even to levels below the EPA’s 75-parts-per-billion threshold, studies have found increased asthma attacks and respiratory-driven hospital visits. There’s also growing evidence that ozone can affect the heart, increasing the risk of cardiac arrest.
“The science is showing how much more harmful ozone is than we previously thought,” said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy for the American Lung Association, which sued the EPA to press the agency to act.
The EPA’s advisory committee has said since 2006 that the standard should be between 60 and 70 ppb. In November, the EPA proposed a range of 65 to 70 ppb, saying it would save both medical costs and lives.
“There are millions of Americans who suffer from asthma, or their kids do,” Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said in an interview. “The American people are entitled to know whether their health is at risk based on the amount of ozone in the air.”
A final rule is due by October 1.
The EPA’s proposal turned a years-long cold war into a hot one. Tightening the rule by just 5 ppb could cost certain industries billions of dollars a year to better rein in ozone-causing emissions.
Those pollutants come from a variety of activities that make modern society tick. Car tailpipes. Power plants. Factories. Refineries. Natural gas wells. Paints and other consumer products. Whenever the EPA proposes new ozone standards, the pushback is rapid.
The National Association of Manufacturers said the rule would be “the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public.” A U.S. Chamber of Commerce official testified in January that the proposal could cause “potentially devastating economic and employment impacts.” The American Petroleum Institute insisted that the current standards already protect public health.
Businesses haven’t made the same arguments in Canada, which has a voluntary 63-ppb standard. Much of that country has reduced ozone levels below the range under consideration here. But the statements from American industry — especially predictions of economic devastation — echo every U.S. ozone battle for the past four decades.
Not every old argument has been resurrected. No one seems to be seriously suggesting this time, as the American Petroleum Institute did in the 1970s, that the major polluters are trees.
But now, with ozone well below where it was in those years, trade groups and some states say future reductions will be far more difficult.
“What we’re bumping up to in the West especially is … we get things in from California, we get a lot of tropospheric ozone coming in from Asia, and so if EPA puts that ozone level down towards 60 ppb, we could wipe out all human activity and we still would have pretty high ozone,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs with the Western Energy Alliance, an oil-and-gas industry group.
McCabe said the EPA doesn’t ask high-ozone communities to stop growing and will work with areas that have unique challenges. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents the officials in 41 states and 116 localities who handle ozone efforts, endorsed a tighter standard this year.
But the last time the EPA considered taking this action, it was staved off by intense lobbying. There’s plenty of that going around again.
Fourteen of the companies and groups that consistently lobbied Congress, the EPA or both on ozone in the past two years have publicly stated their positions on a tighter standard. Only two — the lung association and the League of Conservation Voters — are for it. The rest — business interests, largely trade groups representing manufacturers and energy firms — are against it, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal disclosure data.
“We absolutely at this point are urging the EPA and anybody else who will listen to us to keep the current standard,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which hears about regulatory delays and high expenses from members in ozone “nonattainment” areas. “At a time when … we’re having a manufacturing comeback largely because of energy, this just seems like the wrong way to go.”
A stricter standard could affect almost every state. The EPA says 358 counties had ozone levels in recent years that would violate a 70-ppb rule, about two-thirds of which are out of attainment with the current standard. At 65 ppb, the number rises to 558 counties.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA can freeze federal highway funds and impose other sanctions on areas that exceed health standards. But regions need only to submit plans and take steps toward achieving goals. McCabe said she expects many communities will be able to push their ozone below the threshold just by reaping the benefits of already enacted federal rules. A major one is a 2017 change in fuel standards.
Ozone isn’t something most people worry about. It’s confusing, for one. Up in the stratosphere, ozone is good, creating a layer that protects against ultraviolet radiation. It’s the stuff down at breathing level that’s bad, irritating the lungs and — research suggests — inflaming the blood vessels.
On top of that, it’s invisible. Only when it mixes with particle pollution does it pop into view as smog and offer a visual cue that something’s wrong with the air.
But Daniel M. Dolan-Laughlin pays close attention to ozone levels near him. He’s had to ever since chronic obstructive pulmonary disease began making everyday activities difficult in the 1990s.
“As my lungs got worse, the high ozone would affect them more and more,” said Dolan-Laughlin, a retired railroad executive who lives in a suburb of Chicago.
His disease made it increasingly hard to breathe, forcing him into early retirement in 1994 and later onto oxygen from a tank. Even with the oxygen, he couldn’t go outside when ozone levels rose.
“It would be like going outside on a subzero day,” he said. “My lungs would just freeze up.”
Dolan-Laughlin received a life-saving double lung transplant in 2011. Now he can walk up stairs without pausing every few steps to gasp. He’s climbed several mountains, in fact. But he won’t go out on bad ozone days without a mask.
Dolan-Laughlin, who has testified at EPA hearings in favor of a variety of clean-air rules, hopes the agency will tighten its ozone standard.
“I’m a strident capitalist,” he said, “but I’m also an environmentalist just out of common sense.”
Dianne LaFaver, a teacher who lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, an ozone-challenged region, also wants a tighter standard.
LaFaver’s daughter, 22-year-old Laura Day, has asthma. Before Day left the area for college, her mother twice had to rush her to the emergency room on high-ozone days.
“She hadn’t been exercising, which was the normal trigger,” LaFaver said. “She hadn’t been stressing herself. We were just in the car. … At the emergency room, they were saying they were having lots of visits.”
Dr. Alfred Munzer, a lung-disease specialist who retired last year from Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland, saw 40 years’ worth of patients affected by ozone. There were the asthma attacks triggered by it — ozone causes spasms in the respiratory tract — and the infections that cropped up a day or two later because the pollutant interferes with the lungs’ ability to cleanse themselves, he said.
“There really is, as far as I know, no really safe level of ozone,” said Munzer, a former president of the American Lung Association.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that children are more susceptible to ozone’s effects because their bodies are still developing. The EPA’s proposal, the group said in November, is “long overdue.”
The politics of ozone
That’s also the message coming from the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee Ozone Review Panel, whose 20 scientists and doctors are largely drawn from universities.
Last year panel members unanimously recommended tightening the ozone standard. While they said a range of 60 to 70 ppb would be better than the current threshold, they warned that the upper end might not “protect public health with an adequate margin of safety.”
The panel considered the science. Out in the wider world, politics took over.
Though the EPA can consider only public health when it sets the standard, not factors such as cost, the agency disregarded its advisory committee’s recommendation in 2008 and lowered the threshold from 80 ppb only down to 75. The EPA reconsidered the matter after Barack Obama was elected president. But following industry lobbying, he blocked the agency from setting a lower level in 2011.
Obama said he didn’t support a change at that time, given that the standard was due for reconsideration in 2013. And he emphasized “the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover.”
Then and now, business groups and key Republicans in Congress have contended that a lower standard would be too costly and difficult.
“EPA’s proposal … will lower our nation’s economic competitiveness and stifle job creation for decades,” U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe said in a statement in November. Now chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he plans to hold hearings about the standard.
Air-quality officials in some states see a tighter standard differently — as a welcome relief.
Maryland is one example. Despite its ozone controls, the state had some of the highest concentrations in the East from 2011 to 2013, according to the most recent data from the EPA.
That’s because on almost all bad ozone days, the air already violates current standards as it crosses into Maryland, said Tad Aburn, director of the state’s Air and Radiation Management Administration. He wants to see upwind states reduce their smog, so he favors a stricter standard. “It’s really a regional problem,” he said.
An unexpected location
Air-quality field tech Mike Natchees traveled a wide-open stretch of road one drizzly January morning, past sagebrush, pump jacks and a gas flare burning like an oversized birthday candle. His goal: a shed-like structure atop an unpaved hill. Inside, devices measure how much ozone is in the air.
That air is in Ouray, Utah, part of the Ute tribe’s 4.5-million-acre reservation. Cattle and wild horses probably outnumber the cars going by.
“Occasionally we see antelope out here,” said Preston McDonald, the tribe’s head of air-quality data analysis.
The reservation, along with wide swaths of federal land and small towns, makes up the Uinta Basin in northeast Utah. The mountain-encircled region sits far from urban areas. Population in the largest city, Vernal, barely tops 10,000.
Yet the region has an ozone problem. Not in the summer, but in the dead of winter.
Ozone has to be cooked into life by sunlight, which is usually too weak in the winter to produce much photochemistry. But reflection off snow gives the basin’s sunlight an extra kick. Snow cover also causes temperature inversions that keep polluted air from rising out of the basin.
In such conditions, volatile organic compounds from thousands of oil and gas sites across this region drive ozone way up. In 2013, an inversion-heavy year, the eight-hour average ozone level in Uintah County — spelled with an “h,” unlike the basin — exceeded the standard on 54 days. Concentrations spiked as high as 142 ppb, according to EPA figures. That’s “code purple,” the worst category for air pollution warnings.
Los Angeles County in California, by contrast, had 59 days that exceeded the standard that year, none of which were code purple.
The problem came to light in 2009 after a settlement between the EPA and an energy company operating on Ute land brought air monitors to the area, including the one in Ouray. The state kicked in money to study the problem. So did the Western Energy Alliance, federal agencies and other groups.
The studies determined that the oil and gas industry’s volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are the big contributor. Annual emissions in the basin are on par with the VOCs spewed from 100 million vehicles driven thousands of miles each, according to a University of Colorado Boulder study.
“What might need to be done … and whether it would put the stranglehold on our oil and gas industry and shut it down, or whether just a little bit can make a big difference, are questions that are open still,” said Seth Lyman, a basin ozone researcher who heads Utah State University’s Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center.
The state of Utah requires stricter emission controls at new oil and gas sites than it did several years ago and passed regulations last fall to phase in retrofits of older, leaky equipment.
“VOC emissions should be reduced pretty dramatically … as things tighten up,” said Brock LeBaron, the state’s deputy director of air quality.
The environmental group WildEarth Guardians argues that those efforts aren’t sufficient, given the problem’s scale, and contends that all levels of government are falling down on the job in the basin. Many wells are on federal land.
The EPA has also declined to designate the area in violation of current ozone rules. (Its decision hinges on the fact that much of the past ozone data comes from monitors run by companies, not the government.) WildEarth Guardians sued over the matter in 2012 and awaits a ruling.
Several weeks ago, WildEarth’s Jeremy Nichols drove from Vernal to a wildlife refuge in Randlett, pointing out pump jacks and the tanker trucks that continually travel to and from the basin.
“It’s dangerous, the scale and pace of development,” said Nichols, the group’s climate and energy program director. “You’re seeing that with the air-quality issues. I mean, Vernal has a big-city ozone problem?”
It’s a place that in some ways looks as small-town as it is. A bubblegum-pink fiberglass brontosaurus grins at motorists above Vernal’s welcome sign, one of many local nods to the fossil-studded Dinosaur National Monument nearby.
But it’s also a town with 19 hotels and motels. Its glassy library and other high-end public buildings are different sorts of monuments than the pink dinosaur, ones that speak to years of oil-related taxes and royalties.
The owner of a juice and smoothie bar put up a miniature oil rig outside his business with a sign that seems to sum up the local sentiment: “I (heart) Drilling!”
Oil and gas is the biggest employer in this county, according to state data. The industry directly accounts for about a fifth of the jobs here, and Uintah County Commission Chairman Michael McKee says it rises to half if you add in the ripple effect.
“You take any community, state or region with those dynamics, it’s important that we protect our jobs,” he said. “It’s also important that we have clean air and clean water and a good environment.”
Still, McKee sees a tighter ozone standard from the perspective of a job threat, one that looms as the region heads into an oil bust. Plunging prices prompted layoffs here and the fear of more.
McKee said officials are working on the ozone problem, but he doesn’t see how the basin could meet a tighter standard. While the area doesn’t get inversions every winter — McKee described the air as often “pristine” — compliance is judged based on a three-year average of each year’s fourth-highest daily reading. Inversion years go awfully high.
Utah State University studied asthma-related hospital visits and didn’t see an impact from the area’s high-ozone days, McKee added.
Lyman, whose center wrote that study, is quick to insert a cautionary note: Unlike Atlanta, central New Jersey and other urban areas where studies have found links, the basin has a tiny population. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to jump the bar of statistical significance.
“We think there certainly is an impact, but exactly how it compares to summertime urban ozone is probably never going to be found out because there’s just not enough people here,” Lyman said.
Ozone, at least, is quiescent this winter. Warm temperatures have kept snow from piling up, warding off an inversion.
But the VOCs are still here, millions of cars’ worth, ready to react when conditions are right. Stephanie Howard and Megan Crandall, both with the federal Bureau of Land Management in Utah, drove through the Pariette Wetlands area in the basin on a recent afternoon, explaining what the agency is doing to reduce emissions from ubiquitous oil and gas equipment. Steps include eliminating VOC-heavy evaporation ponds and pressing operators to replace leaky valves.
At the same time, the bureau is reviewing whether to allow more than 8,500 additional oil and gas wells in the region, double the number now under its jurisdiction. Leonard Herr, an air resources specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, knows that poses a tough question: Can total emissions be reined even as sources multiply?
He’s optimistic about that. And he doesn’t view a tighter ozone standard as a looming disaster for the basin.
“Nonattainment and failure to meet the standards after that isn’t the end of the world,” he said. “Just look at L.A. It’s been nonattainment almost my whole adult life, and it’s not a barren wasteland of economic development.”
The cost debate
When the EPA sets its ozone standard, the Supreme Court ruled in 2001, the Clean Air Act mandates that only one factor be weighed: what the best available science shows people can safely breathe.
Some members of Congress want to change that. Among the flurry of ozone bills submitted last year was the industry-supported “Clean Air, Strong Economies Act,” which would have required the agency to consider cost. It also would have barred a new standard from taking effect until 85 percent of counties failing the old standard fixed their air.
The companion bills, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in the Senate and U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, in the House, didn’t get put to a vote last year. The bills were referred to committees that are now both headed by Republicans opposed to tighter ozone standards, which could give the measures new life if reintroduced as planned this year.
The National Association of Manufacturers’ Eisenberg characterized the effort as a way to give the EPA more flexibility, though he acknowledged that the group hasn’t spent much time considering how that might affect public health.
“We’re certainly hoping to have that discussion,” he said.
What’s more evident to manufacturers is the business impact when a community tips into ozone nonattainment. They must more than offset any pollution added if they want to expand or build something new, Eisenberg said. That could mean buying pricey credits on the emissions-offset market or shutting down another pollution source, he said, so more often manufacturers simply go elsewhere.
The EPA argues that the value of its proposal outweighs the expense because medical care and missed work days from ozone-triggered health problems add up fast. The agency estimated the benefit of a 65-ppb standard at $19 billion to $38 billion a year beginning in 2025, when it expects most of the country would meet that tighter threshold, compared with an estimated $15 billion in annual costs.
Trade groups say the negative impact would be far higher. A study for the National Association of Manufacturers suggests a 65-ppb standard would cost the U.S. economy $140 billion a year. The effects would include fewer jobs, higher electricity costs and restricted fossil-fuel production, the study says.
The Congressional Research Service weighed in last fall to declare the impact too far off to estimate. Ozone rules usually have deadlines that are years, even decades, into the future, and they often spur new, less expensive pollution technology.
“Aside from some statutorily mandated compliance measures, states — not EPA — decide what sources will be regulated and how stringent the controls will be,” the nonpartisan think tank added in its issue brief. “Often, industry can choose how to comply.”
Given that, the actual cost of past ozone reduction would be useful to know. But those numbers don’t seem to exist, despite all the effort spent trying to estimate them in advance the past 40 years.
The EPA, working with economists, did put a price tag on the expense of reducing all the pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act. Their $22-billion-a-year tally for 1973 to 1990 was less than half the annual amount the American Petroleum Institute projected in 1979 for the cost of reducing ozone alone.
The ozone seesaw
“Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called,” Nixon, a Republican, said in his 1970 State of the Union address.
The Clean Air Act prompted the first national ozone standard, set at 80 ppb the next year. Catalytic converters followed, eventually reducing vehicle pollution in a big way.
But amid the high oil prices and inflation of the later ’70s, the Carter administration targeted regulations that advisors and industry argued were more cost than benefit. Carter’s inflation-fighting economists questioned whether the ozone studies of the time, then less definitive, really demonstrated that the pollutant needed to be reduced as much as the standard suggested. Up it went in 1979, to 120 ppb.
Industry groups had called for the standard to be set at 160 ppb or higher. Even 120 ppb, the American Petroleum Institute argued, would prompt “extensive social and economic disruption,” The Washington Post reported at the time.
The institute was then in the midst of an ozone lawsuit. The EPA, the trade group alleged, suppressed research showing the main source of smog was natural vegetation.
Patrick R. Zimmerman wrote those EPA-funded studies, and he says the agency did drag its feet in allowing him to publish his results. Later, he realized that officials were worried someone would purposely misinterpret his findings — which is what he says the institute did.
Trees and vegetation, Zimmerman found, emit certain VOCs at such high levels that they far out-produce man-made sources in forest-heavy regions. But that doesn’t mean urban smog is a tree problem, Zimmerman said — it’s not. (Rarely is ozone formed without an assist from man-made pollution, the EPA says.)
Zimmerman was appalled at what happened next.
“The American Petroleum Institute … wrote articles that they planted in all kinds of magazines and newspapers,” said Zimmerman, a scientist who now runs an environmental-technology firm in South Dakota. “It must have been 100 of them. Each article was pretty much the same, and it said something like, ‘Trees emit so much pollution, we can’t possibly control ozone, and the standards should be higher.’ ”
That apparently made an impression on Ronald Reagan. While running for president, he said trees and plants were bigger polluters than cars — his so-called “killer trees” moment.
The petroleum institute didn’t respond to the Center’s requests for comment.
Zimmerman couldn’t believe how little the actual science seemed to matter. He was glad to get out of ozone research.
“I really underestimated the importance of politics,” he said.
Outside Utah’s state Capitol building in January, several thousand people pressed together, some carrying signs, some wearing gas masks. They cheered speakers railing against air pollution. They clapped as a band turned the heavy-metal anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It” into “We’re Not Gonna Breathe It.”
“People have just had enough,” said Daniel Roper, a Salt Lake City resident who attended the rally with his 21-month-old son. “It’s Salt Lake City’s dirty secret. We didn’t know about it when we moved here.”
Salt Lake City, like the Uinta Basin, is a region with air-quality challenges — ozone in the summer and harmful particulate matter in the winter. But unlike the Uinta, there’s a large contingent of residents here who loudly press officials to do more about it.
Nearly nine in 10 Utah residents view air pollution as a “serious problem,” driven by concerns in the Salt Lake area, according to a Colorado College poll released in February.
Rally speakers, elected officials among them, urged Utah’s legislature to accelerate efforts to clean the state’s air and criticized businesses that put themselves on the other side of the debate.
“Without public health, there is no prosperity,” said the Rev. David Nichols of Mount Tabor Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City, one of the speakers.
Cherise Udell, a rally organizer who founded the 3,000-member Utah Moms for Clean Air, hates the jobs-vs.-air argument with a passion. She has a different way of looking at clean-air standards: Who should pay for pollution?
Once, she says, everybody threw their waste into the streets. Then it became clear how unsanitary that was, and people had to shell out to get their trash hauled away.
She contends that some businesses are still dumping their garbage into the community by polluting the air — making other people pay for it in medical bills and worse health.
“That’s completely and utterly unfair,” Udell said. “If your neighbor was doing that, you’d be outraged.”
Maryam Jameel and Alexander Cohen of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this article.
Federal health officials were advised in 2009 that a formula used to pay private Medicare plans triggered widespread billing errors and overcharges that have since wasted billions of tax dollars, newly released government records show.
Privately run Medicare Advantage plans offer an alternative to standard Medicare, which pays doctors for each service they render. Under Medicare Advantage, the federal government pays the private health plans a set monthly fee for each patient based on a formula known as a risk score, which is supposed to measure the state of their health. Sicker patients merit higher rates than those in good health.
The program is a good fit for many seniors. Some 16 million people have signed up — about a third of people eligible for Medicare — and more are expected to follow. Supporters argue that Medicare Advantage improves care while costing members less out of pocket than standard Medicare. The Medicare Advantage industry is lobbying hard to block budget cuts sought by the Obama administration.
Medicare Advantage plans are “clearly an important force to be reckoned with when it comes to making public policy,” said Dr. Robert Berenson, a former government health official, who is now at The Urban Institute.
But overspending tied to rising risk scores has cost taxpayers billions of dollars in recent years, as the Center for Public Integrity reported in a series of articles published last year. Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office estimated “improper payments” to Medicare Advantage plans at more than $12 billion in 2014.
Concerns that some health plans overstate how sick their patients are date back years, according to records recently released to the Center for Public Integrity under the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents include an unpublished study commissioned by the agency that runs Medicare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and dated Sept. 29, 2009; the study tracked growth in risk scores starting in 2004, the year after Congress created the billing tool.
The study found that risk scores for Medicare Advantage enrollees grew twice as fast between 2004 and 2008 as they would have had the same person remained in standard Medicare. The study said it was “extremely unlikely” that people who enrolled in the plans actually got sicker and noted that coding inflation “results in inappropriate payment levels.”
The lead author was Richard Kronick, then a researcher at the University of California, San Diego. Kronick now heads the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a research arm of the Department of Health and Human Services. He had no comment. Other authors listed included three CMS employees.
A CMS spokesman said on Thursday that the agency sought to publish the findings on a government run research site, but was told it needed to be “substantially shortened” to be considered. “Given competing workload demands we were not able to revise and resubmit the article,” the official said in a statement.
The study cited diabetes as an example of the billing problem.
The private Medicare Advantage health plans reported rates of diabetes with medical complications more than twice as often as for people in standard Medicare. “It seems extremely unlikely that the actual distribution of diabetics changed substantially in MA plans…and “almost surely reflects MA efforts to more fully document members’ diagnoses,” the study said.
The authors noted that “a number of companies have successfully marketed services to help MA plans increase their risk scores.” They also said that the problem was worsening over time.
The study said that a number of large Medicare health plans, which were not named, raised risk scores far above their peers. But the agency chose not to ferret out the worst offenders and discipline them. Instead CMS cut rates industrywide in 2010 by 3.41% to offset the jump in risk scores.
Berenson, of the Urban Institute, said cutting rates across the board was a kind of “rough justice.”
“It seems to me that they need to identify the plans that are bending the rules,” Berenson said. “It’s not so easy to focus in on plans that are overly aggressive (in billing),” he said.
Medicare Advantage plans are currently mounting an aggressive lobbying effort to stave off proposed new federal budget cuts. Fifty-three U.S. Senators signed a recent letter opposing the cuts. The Coalition for Medicare Choices, run by the health insurance industry, even rolled out a “Medicare Advantage” themed food truck that parceled out free cookies and coffee near the U.S. Capitol. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch was among those who stopped by.
Separately, an advocacy group called the Better Medicare Alliance on March 10 unveiled a pair of advertisements arguing any cuts would cause seniors to pay more for their medical care.
Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement:
“Seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage have already faced year-over-year cuts to the coverage they rely on. Now, CMS is proposing another cut at a time when beneficiaries, policymakers, providers are all calling for stability in the program. Preventing any further cuts to Medicare Advantage will ensure seniors can continue to rely on this critical lifeline.”
Though Medicare Advantage has built formidable support in Congress, the risk-based payment system has critics in other areas of government.
Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office , the audit arm of Congress, cited more than $12 billion in improper payments to Medicare Advantage plans among a total of near $60 billion in misspent Medicare funds for 2014. A broader GAO audit of how well federal officials have monitored the industry to curb overbilling is underway and due to be released later this year.
The industry has a good track record when it comes to building the political support to silence its critics. For instance, an ad campaign run by the industry in 2013 turned a proposed two percent cut in rates into a three per cent rate hike. In backing down, CMS officials said the revised rates would give patients “more value in the care they receive and greater protections against increasing costs.
President Obama’s proposed 2016 budget seeks more than $36 billion in Medicare Advantage cuts over the next decade, mainly by taking aim at risk scoring.
A final decision on the payment rates for 2016 is due in April.
PELINDABA, South Africa– Enough nuclear explosive to fuel a half-a-dozen bombs, each powerful enough to obliterate central Washington or most of lower Manhattan, is locked in a former silver vault at this nuclear research center near the South African capital.
Technicians extracted the highly-enriched uranium from the apartheid regime’s nuclear weapons in 1990, then melted the fuel down and cast it into ingots. Over the years some of the cache has been used to make medical isotopes, but roughly 485 pounds remains, and South Africa is keeping a tight grip on it.
That gives this country — which has insisted that the United States and other world powers completely destroy their nuclear arsenals – a theoretical ability to regain its former status as a nuclear-weapons state. But what really worries the United States is that the nuclear explosives here could be stolen and used by militants to commit the worst terror attack in history.
Senior current and former U.S. officials say they have reason to be concerned. On a cold night in November of 2007, two teams of raiders breached the fences here at the Pelindaba research center, set in the rolling scrubland a half-hour’s drive west of Pretoria, the country's administrative capital. One group penetrated deep into the site unchallenged and broke into the site’s central alarm station. They were stopped only because a substitute watch officer summoned others.
The episode remains a source of contention between Pretoria and Washington because no suspects were ever charged with the assault, and officials here have dismissed it as a minor, bungled burglary. U.S. officials and experts — backed up by a confidential South African security report — say to the contrary that the assailants appeared to know what they were doing and what they wanted: the bomb-grade uranium. They also say the raid came perilously close to succeeding.
The episode still spooks Washington, which as a result has waged a discreet diplomatic campaign to persuade South Africa to get rid of its large and, by U.S. reckoning, highly vulnerable stock of nuclear weapons fuel.
But South African President Jacob Zuma, like his predecessors, has resisted the White House’s persistent entreaties and generous incentives to do so, for reasons that have partly baffled and enormously frustrated the Americans.
President Barack Obama, in a previously undisclosed private letter sent to Zuma in Aug. 2011 and inspired partly by the Pelindaba break-in, went so far as to warn Zuma that a terrorist nuclear attack would be a “global catastrophe.” He proposed that South Africa transform its nuclear explosives into a benign reactor fuel, with U.S. help.
If Zuma agreed, the White House would trumpet their deal at a 2012 summit on nuclear security in South Korea, Obama wrote, according to a copy of the letter. Together, he said, the two nations could “better protect people around the world.”
Zuma was unmoved, however, and in a letter of his own, he insisted that it needs its nuclear materials and was capable of keeping them secure. He did not accept a related appeal from Obama two years later, current and former senior U.S. officials said.
Differing points of view
Washington may bear a special responsibility for ensuring that South Africa’s materials do not wind up in the wrong hands.
Over nine years ending in 1965, it helped South Africa build its first nuclear reactor under the Atoms for Peace program, and then trained scientists to run it with U.S.-supplied, weapons-grade uranium fuel. Washington finally cut off the fuel supply in 1976, after becoming convinced the apartheid regime used its nuclear research to create a clandestine bomb program, fueled by its own highly-enriched uranium.
The apartheid regime hatched the bomb program at a time when it faced sabotage at home, wars on its borders and increasing international isolation. But by the end of the Cold War, the government realized that its whites-only rule would have to be scrapped, and so its leaders ordered the weapons destroyed and the production facilities dismantled, while holding onto the explosive fuel.
In interviews, top officials in both countries made clear that they see the nuclear security issue today through different prisms. Zuma’s appointees assert that it’s absurd for the United States to obsess over the security of the country’s small nuclear explosive stockpile, while downplaying the starker threat posed by the big powers’ nuclear arsenals.
Raising the threat of nuclear terror, officials here say, is an excuse to restrict the spread of peaceful and profitable nuclear technology to the developing world, and to South Africa in particular.
This claim of being singled out is similar to that made by another emerging nuclear power: Iran. And for good reason: Both countries defiantly constructed facilities to enrich uranium in the past, over foreign opposition, and want the rest of the world to agree they have a right to do it in the future. They have long been diplomatic friends and trading partners, and have discussed helping one anothers’ nuclear research.
But this demand for uranium enrichment rights– which Tehran wants enshrined in an agreement with six great powers — is hardly theirs alone. Although the Obama administration has tried to discourage uranium enrichment everywhere, leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Jordan, and South Korea say they see nuclear power, along with the ability to enrich uranium, as their right.
By most accounts, Iran doesn’t have significant amounts of weapons uranium, only the means to make it. But it stands accused by the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) — and behind it, by the United Nations Security Council — with failing to come clean about past nuclear work with weapons applications. That’s why it has been hit with sanctions.
South Africa, in contrast, was praised by the IAEA in 1995 for “transparency and openness” in discussing its weapons program. The agency also declared it had no reason to suspect that South Africa’s inventory of fissile materials was incomplete or that the program had not been completely stopped and dismantled.
Unlike Iran, however, South Africa already possesses highly-enriched uranium — nearly a quarter-ton of it — which the United States has tried but failed to pry loose. That’s why current and former U.S. officials say that it is South Africa that is now the world’s largest uncooperative holder of nuclear explosives, outside of the 9 existing nuclear powers.
Few outside the weapons states possess such a large and vulnerable stockpile of prime weapons material, and none has been as defiant of U.S. pressure to give it up.
Told what this story would say, the South African government responded Friday with a statement reaffirming its view that the November 2007 break-in was a run-of-the-mill burglary and asserting that the weapons uranium is safe.
“We are aware that there has been a concerted campaign to undermine us by turning the reported burglary into a major risk,” said Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry, called the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. He said the IAEA had raised no concerns, and that “attempts by anyone to manufacture rumours and conspiracy theories laced with innuendo are rejected with the contempt they deserve.”
A crime problem
Experts consider HEU the terrorists’ nuclear explosive of choice. A bomb’s worth could fit in an empty 5-lb sack of flour and emit so little radiation it could be carried around in a backpack with little hazard to the wearer. Physicists say a sizable nuclear blast could be readily achieved by slamming two shaped chunks of it together at high speed.
Several months before becoming responsible for White House nonproliferation policies last year, arms control expert Jon Wolfsthal told the Center in an interview that the U.S. motives for seeking to clean out South Africa’s weapons uranium were straightforward and that they focused on the stockpile held at Pelindaba.
“The bottom line is that South Africa has a crime problem,” Wolfstahl said. “They have a facility that is holding onto material that they don’t need and a political chip on their shoulder about giving up that material. That has rightly concerned the United States, which is trying to get rid of any cache of HEU [Highly-Enriched Uranium] that is still out there.”
Thanks in part to U.S. efforts, just nine non-nuclear weapons states besides South Africa still have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, although mostly not in a readily-usable form, according to Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies: Germany, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Poland, Italy, Netherlands and Belarus.
Each has been similarly asked by Washington and its allies to reduce or eliminate their stocks of highly enriched uranium. Canada, Japan, Kazakhstan, Italy and Poland promised publicly at the 2014 White House nuclear security summit to reduce their holdings in the next few years. Belgium said it would eliminate its HEU stocks “in time.”
For South Africa, maintaining a grip on its bomb fuel is tangled up with its national pride, its suspicion of big power motivations, and its anger over Washington’s past half-measures in opposing apartheid. “It’s a technical issue with an emotional overhang,” said Donald Gips, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa from 2009 to 2013.
Some of its top officials complained privately, Gips said, that Washington’s pressure stems from a conviction that Africans “cannot be trusted to keep nuclear materials.”
Other South Africans have said that by refusing to let go of its uranium, the country retains the higher political and scientific stature of a country like Japan, which is considered “nuclear weapons-capable” while possessing none.
The chief obstacle to achieving one of the White House’s top arms control priorities, according to U.S. officials, is Zuma, the president since May 2009. He led the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to another victory last year with 62 percent of the vote and could serve at least through 2019.
Zuma, a former ANC intelligence chief, is a shrewd populist and one of the most influential figures in the Non-Aligned Movement representing 120 mostly developing nations. That’s why Washington thought swift action by Zuma could set a valuable precedent.
Obama election was celebrated here and the two presidents seemed to forge a personal bond at their first meeting in July 2009, raising White House hopes for progress. A team of senior Energy and State Department officials traveled to Pretoria a month later to sell the idea of relinquishing the explosive materials.
Obama invited Zuma to a series of White House summits on nuclear security, and dispatched scientists from U.S. nuclear weapons labs and FBI antiterrorist experts to help protect the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg against nuclear-related threats.
After Zuma nonetheless rejected Obama’s 2011 plea, Obama raised the issue again during a trip to Pretoria in June 2013.
This time, he privately asked Zuma to relinquish a different trove of weapons-usable uranium — still embedded in older reactor fuel that by U.S. accounts is lightly-guarded – in exchange for a free shipment of 772 pounds of fresh, non-weapons usable reactor fuel, valued at $5 million.
Obama followed up with a three-page letter in Dec., 2013, two days after he spoke with Zuma at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto. According to a copy of the letter, he urged Zuma to seal this new deal at a March 2014 nuclear summit in the Netherlands.
Although technical experts held preliminary talks, Zuma never accepted the swap, and didn’t bother to attend that summit, sending Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in his place.
There, she told reporters that the summits should “wrap up” their work and leave nuclear security to the IAEA, which considers the expansion of civilian nuclear power a key mission.
Fear of “what could go wrong” with nuclear technology, she said, should not violate the “inalienable rights” of countries to use enriched uranium for peaceful purposes. “We have no ambition for building a bomb again. That is past history,” she said. “But we want to use this resource.”
South Africa has used some of the former bomb fuel to make medical and industrial isotopes — generating $85 million in income a year. But about six years ago, South Africa started making the isotopes with low-enriched uranium that poses little proliferation risk — a decision that robbed it of its longstanding rationale for keeping the materials.
Now officials here say they’re retaining their weapons uranium partly because someday someone may find a new, as-yet-undiscovered, commercial application. If and when one is found, a senior South African diplomat said in an interview, “it’ll be like OPEC to the power of ten,” where states without the material would be at the mercy of a cartel of foreign suppliers.
Pretoria’s determination to keep its weapons uranium dates to the apartheid era, but the most vocal advocate in democratic South Africa has been Abdul Samad Minty, who served for most of the past two decades as his country’s top nuclear policymaker.
Gary Samore, the White House coordinator on weapons of mass destruction from 2009 to 2013, called Minty “a worthy adversary for me in all of the nuclear security summits,” who was “deeply, emotionally opposed to giving up their HEU.”
Minty, 75, now South Africa’s ambassador to U.N. agencies headquartered in Geneva, sipped green tea in his office as he explained that it is the United States that is recalcitrant. Even as it campaigns to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, he says, it refuses to part with its own.
“The problem is you can’t have nuclear weapons states who feel they can have nuclear weapons and have as many as they want,” he said.
Stocks of fissile materials held by countries outside the small club of nuclear weapons states, he said, are just “not that important” a threat compared to the thousands of nuclear weapons held by the bigger powers.
As an ANC activist for 30 years, Minty successfully pushed to have the regime expelled from the IAEA’s Board of Governors. Named South Africa’s top representative to the IAEA in 1995, Minty became a regular thorn in the side of the West. He abstained in 2005 and 2006 on resolutions referring Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council, arguing the resolutions were procedurally flawed or premature.
The IAEA, the 75-year-old diplomat told the Center, cannot be used as a tool to undermine the “basic right” of non-nuclear countries to develop their own nuclear industries, by setting expensive and restrictive security standards.
He also harshly criticized the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty – in which the members of the U.N. Security Council agreed to get rid of their nuclear arsenals if the rest of the world promised not to acquire them -- for not pressuring the major powers to disarm.
“Yes they are reducing, not disarming,” Minty said. “Now if you say you need nuclear weapons for your security, what stops another country from saying at another time, in another situation, I also need nuclear weapons for my security?”
“People who smoke can’t tell someone else not to smoke,” Minty said.
U.S. officials reject this reasoning. “Nuclear disarmament is not going to happen,” Samore said he told Minty, and waiting for it is a dangerous excuse for inaction. “It’s a fantasy. We need our weapons for our safety, and we’re not going to give them up.”
According to U.S. officials and experts, South Africa uses only about 16.5 pounds of its remaining stock of weapons uranium to make isotopes annually, out of a total stockpile estimated by foreign experts at around 485 pounds. And it need not use it at all.
Some American officials say they think Minty still bears a grudge from vigorous U.S. opposition to his bid to replace Mohammed ElBaradei as director general of the IAEA in 2009. Minty fought hard, but he had angered U.S. officials by making supportive comments about Iran, including an assertion early in 2008 that “there is increasing confidence in the Iranian enrichment program.”
Getting beyond the impasse
Waldo Stumpf, a longtime atomic energy official in South Africa who presided over the dismantlement of the apartheid-era bomb program, said in an interview that handing over the HEU “was never part of the thinking here. Not within Mr. [Frederik Willem] De Klerk’s government. Not afterwards when the ANC took over. Why would we give away a commercially valuable material that has earned a lot of foreign exchange? Why would we do that?”
In fact, South Africa intends not only to keep its existing enriched uranium, officials here say, it insists on the right to make or acquire more. “Our international legally binding obligations…allow for the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes only, irrespective of the enrichment level,” Zuma said at the 2012 nuclear security summit in Seoul.
Asked about South Africa’s policy, a former senior Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities said that after U.S. officials pressed their arguments “at every level possible,” he became convinced that South Africa would not give up its nuclear explosives so long as Zuma remains in power.
Xolisa Mabhongo, who served from 2010 to 2014 as South Africa’s ambassador to the IAEA and last year moved to a senior executive post at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, confirmed this assessment.
“I don’t think there any incentive that can be offered” that South Africa would trade for its weapons uranium, Mabhongo said. “It’s our property. We do not see the need to give it to anybody else. [President Thabo] Mbeki explained this to Bush, and Zuma explained this to Obama. So I don’t think this position is ever going to change.”
Birch reported from Washington and South Africa; Smith reported from Washington.
PELINDABA, South Africa — Shortly after midnight on a cold Thursday morning, four armed men sliced through the chain-link fence surrounding this storage site for nuclear explosives on the banks of the Crocodile River, west of the administrative capital, Pretoria.
The raiders slipped under an array of high-voltage wires in the fence, then shut off the electricity and some alarms, stormed the emergency response center at the 118-acre complex, held a gun to the head of one of the employees there and shot another.
Around the same time, a second group of intruders breached another section of the fence. But both teams wound up fleeing after they unexpectedly stumbled on a fireman at the emergency center who fought them while a substitute watch officer summoned help.
Whatever the raiders were after that night in November 2007, they didn’t get it. All they left with was one of their victim’s cell phones, which they quickly discarded. Ever since, the government of South Africa has dismissed the incident as a routine burglary by inept thieves who tried but failed to steal computers or civilian nuclear technology.
Many U.S. officials in Washington reached a different view — more closely matching the conclusions of an unpublicized, independent investigation ordered by the chief of the state corporation that manages Pelindaba. That probe produced an alarming report that has never been released — or even acknowledged — in South Africa, but was obtained by foreign intelligence agencies and described to the Center for Public Integrity by multiple people familiar with its contents.
The author, who formerly worked for Kroll Inc., an international investigations firm, concluded that the raid was a carefully planned operation, that it relied on inside help, that those involved had special training, and that it probably targeted the nuclear explosives. Its leads and recommendations were shared with South African officials.
More than seven years later, no one has been charged with a crime, and no suspects have been identified.
South African opposition parties have demanded a more concerted inquiry, but the ruling African National Congress has brushed the issue aside. Then-Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota told lawmakers in 2008 that the break-in was “a clear criminal act” and a matter for police to pursue.
William H. Tobey, the deputy administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration at the time of the break-in, is among many U.S. experts disturbed by the episode. While he remains uncertain of the raiders’ objectives, he said he was convinced “there was insider participation.” Rather than face the implications of the assault, he said, South African officials are in denial about it.
The 2007 breach, one of three reported at Pelindaba since the end of apartheid twenty years ago, fueled U.S. concerns that South Africa’s crime, corruption, and porous borders — all detailed in recent U.S. counterterrorism reports — could make it a staging ground for an episode of nuclear terrorism.
Gary Samore, who served as President Obama’s principal advisor on nuclear terrorism until 2013, said that government experts during his tenure regarded Pelindaba as one of the “most vulnerable” stockpiles of weapons uranium in the world. The 2007 assault on Pelindaba, Samore said, “was certainly one of the main reasons South Africa would be on that list, because that really freaked people out.”
“Nothing is impregnable”
Pelindaba, a half-hour’s drive west of Pretoria, stretches across a series of hilltops, dotted with acacia trees, circled by the 6.8-mile-long fence. In the basement of one building is the vault that currently has more than six times the amount of explosive HEU needed to create a blast larger than the U.S. bomb that devastated Hiroshima.
But two experts familiar with the security arrangements say that building has no special guard force deployed full-time at its perimeter, unlike similar repositories in the United States.
Waldo Stumpf, a senior official in South Africa’s nuclear programs under both the apartheid and democratic governments until 2001, said that in his view “there’s no way” that unauthorized parties can get into the vault.
But Roger Johnston, a physicist who from 1992 until early this year led a team of Energy Department scientists that studied global nuclear security measures, said that anyone who says a vault couldn’t be broken into “hasn’t really thought through the security issues — because, if they had, they would be sweating bullets.”
“It’s just not a business where you should ever be confident,” Johnston said.
The Secret Report
The former Kroll investigator was hired by Rob Adam, then the chief executive at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, which runs Pelindaba. He declined to share a copy of the resulting report, but the 98-page document, completed in March 2009, paints a darker picture of the episode than the government has, according to multiple people familiar with its contents.
It describes how at every step the attackers displayed a detailed knowledge of Pelindaba’s security systems, and the expertise needed to overcome them.
The first raider went straight to the electrical box, where he circumvented a magnetic anti-tampering mechanism, disabled the alarms, cut the communications cable, and shut down power to a portion of the fence and to alarms on a gate just 250 feet away — opening a path for a vehicle to exit.
This was not simply a matter of pulling a switch, a person familiar with the independent investigation said, but required electrical skills and knowledge of the security systems. Those who participated, the report said, had special training.
Once inside, the gang walked three-quarters of a mile uphill toward the fire station next to the emergency center. Working swiftly, the assailants broke in, found a hidden latch securing a fire truck ladder, and used the ladder to climb to the Center’s second-floor landing.
The raiders arrived on a night when they may have expected little resistance. The Emergency Center supervisor scheduled for duty that night used a wheelchair, but had arranged for a colleague to take his place. She brought along her dog and her fiancé, Frans Antonie Gerber, an off-duty firefighter.
Security forces never confronted the raiders. But the dogs’ barking — which led Gerber to spy the intruders and his girlfriend to call for help — thwarted the intrusion.
Three of the intruders attacked Gerber and one shot him in the chest when he resisted. Apparently frightened off because of the phone call, the first team fled. The second did not go far before they too left, leading the investigator to speculate that they had communicated with the first team.
South African Police Service officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa’s minister of intelligence services at the time of the raid, said in a brief email that he had ordered a “thorough investigation” but that the results appeared to show it was a “routine burglary.” Siyabonga Cwele, his successor in 2009, declined to be interviewed.
The private investigator tracked down some of the cellphone records of calls made in the Pelindaba area the night of the raid, which in combination with interviews and polygraph tests led him to two South Africans he ultimately suspected of having participated, as well as several others who may have been accomplices.
But the suspects were never arrested or even questioned by police, according to two South Africans with knowledge of the case.
Whatever the raiders’ intent, a former U.S. intelligence official said, they “had the run of the place. The more we learned, the more horrifying it was ... They could have gotten the stuff” if they had been more determined to do so.
Matthew Bunn, a Clinton White House nuclear security official who also advised the Bush administration on the issue, called the view that the raiders were common criminals “utterly nonsensical.”
“Nobody breaks through a 10,000-volt security fence to steal someone’s cellphone,” Bunn said. The assumption “to be disproved,” he added, was that they were after the weapons uranium.
Birch reported from Washington and South Africa. Smith reported from Washington.
The reason health care costs are so high is because Americans don’t have nearly enough “skin in the game.”
That was the phrase that many of my former colleagues in the insurance industry and I began using in the early 2000s as a way to deflect attention away from us.
Americans — especially American employers — looked to private insurers to help control medical costs. But insurers were failing miserably, and some of them — Aetna in particular — were also failing Wall Street.
Thirteen years ago, investors and Wall Street financial analysts were not happy with the way some managed care companies were running their businesses. They felt that Aetna and other big for-profit insurers were spending far too much of their policyholders’ premiums paying claims. And they didn’t like it that insurers hadn’t been aggressive enough in getting rid of “unprofitable” customers.
One way to satisfy Wall Street was to begin shifting more and more of the cost of health care — and health insurance — to their customers. That meant that sick policyholders in particular would be paying more out of their own pocket for their care.
Our marketing folks came up with an almost Orwellian name for this cost shifting —consumer driven health care. In retrospect, it was a brilliant strategy, and one that got virtually no pushback from lawmakers or regulators. Little by little, year after year — and long before many people outside of Illinois had ever heard of Barack Obama — Americans began putting more of their skin in the health care game. They had no choice.
The strategy has been so successful that insurers are back in Wall Street’s good graces. Their profits keep breaking records, and so does the price of their stock.
But what’s good for them has been anything but good for a growing number of Americans. Out-of-pocket expenses have gotten so high that nearly half of American families don’t have enough money in the bank to pay their deductibles if they get really sick.
That was one of the findings of last week’s report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which decided to look into how the skin-in-the-game strategy is affecting family budgets. KFF’s researchers found that 49 percent of American households wouldn’t have enough liquid assets to meet what their out-of-pocket obligations would be if they were in a plan with a $2,500 individual deductible and $5,000 family deductible.
While conventional wisdom holds that consumer driven health care has contributed to a slowing in the rate of medical inflation, it also undoubtedly has contributed to a very troubling phenomenon: people with health insurance who are no longer getting the care they need because they don’t have enough money to meet their deductibles.
“High deductibles may be okay for people who are generally healthy and have the resources to pay their cost sharing when they need to,” Kaiser Family Foundation CEO Drew Altman wrote in a Wall Street Journal commentary last Wednesday. “But big deductibles can also be a real barrier to needed care for people with moderate or lower incomes who are sick.”
The additional skin we’ve had to put in the game has been fairly modest on a year-to-year basis, so modest in fact that it hasn’t attracted much attention. But when you look back over the past decade, the cumulative increase is startling. Out-of-pocket costs have increased 100 percent or more in most states since 2003, according to The Commonwealth Fund, which also has been following this trend.
And while this has been going on, premiums have been going through the roof. The average premium for an employer-sponsored plan nearly tripled between 1999 and 2014, from $5,791 to $16,834. And lest you think Obamacare is to blame, some of the biggest annual increases occurred during the decade before the Affordable Care Act was passed.
Not only that, but a growing percentage of the premiums is coming out of worker’s paychecks. In 1999, the employee contribution to premiums for a family policy averaged 26.6 percent, according to KFF. It had risen to 29 percent by 2010, the year Congress passed the Affordable Care Act.
After the law went into effect, the percentage actually declined. It stood at 28.7 percent in 2014. Even with that modest decline, workers in 2014 nevertheless were paying more than three times as much for their employer-sponsored family coverage as they did in 1999 ($4,823 versus $1,543).
The first time I recall an insurance company executive use the term skin-in-the-game was in 2002 when then Aetna CEO John W. Rowe used it during a call with financial analysts and investors. The occasion was the company’s first quarter earnings report. Rowe described what he and his management team had been doing to turn the company around, which included getting rid of millions of members Aetna considered to be money losers.
Rowe said that to keep shareholders happy, Aetna would increase premiums 18 percent that year and shift more of the cost of care to its remaining members.
“’We are giving people some skin in the game, a personal financial interest in being cautious about seeking care,’” Rowe told the New York Times.
That was music to investors’ ears. Aetna’s shares rose 13.5 percent that day.
The stock price closed at $11.42 on April 26, 2002 (after adjusting for subsequent stock splits). Last Friday it closed at $104.09, an historical high. Thanks, in large part, to all that skin its policyholders have had to put in the game.
Wendell Potter is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Obamacare: What’s in It for Me? What Everyone Needs to Know About the Affordable Care Act.
The United States remains the largest exporter of weaponry to the world, with Russia hanging onto second place and China grabbing ahold of third, according to the latest annual survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which ranks sales of weapons based on their value, quantity, and function.
The market they are supplying is expanding. Arms sales over the past five years are 16 percent higher than they were from 2005 to 2009, SIPRI reported, signaling growing demand for major weapons.
The armaments are unsurprisingly being poured into some of the most volatile regions, with India — which has border disputes with Pakistan and perennial competition with China — the top importing country for the past five years.
Russia has been the top supplier to India since 2010, but the U.S. is racing to carve out a larger piece of the Indian market, the SPIRI report makes clear. The U.S. exported more weapons to the sub-continent in 2013 than it had in all years since 1955 put together. Last year, the U.S. sold India more arms than it sold any other country except Saudi Arabia.
Those sales were not impeded by the most recent State Department human rights survey, which claimed that India has significant problems with “police and security force abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape; widespread corruption at all levels of government, leading to denial of justice; and separatist, insurgent, and societal violence.”
In addition to exporting the highest volume of arms in the past five years, the U.S. has had more client countries than any other exporter: 94 in total.
This diverse clientele reflects the idea that “‘we can’t be everywhere, but maybe our weapons should,’” said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate with the Stimson Center, which hosted the launch of SIPRI’s data on Monday.
Aircraft account for 61 percent of all American arms sales, and the largest piece of that — according to SIPRI — is the F35 combat aircraft. So far, more than than 600 F-35A combat aircraft have been ordered or selected by Australia, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Turkey, and the UK, bolstering future years’ U.S. arms exports, according to the report.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history, has been in production since 2006 but continues to be beset by technological problems. A March 2015 report by the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation on the status of the aircraft’s development described deficiencies in the aircraft’s software, vulnerabilities to engine and fuel fire, and electrical issues.
The second-most frequently exported weapons in the U.S. are missiles, which account for 14 percent of all U.S. arms sold since 2010. The largest share of those missiles have gone to Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Canada, and Israel.
China edged out Germany to become the third biggest weapons exporter during the 2010-2014 period by increasing its sales a whopping 143 percent over 2005-2009, compared to increases of 37 percent for Russia and 23 percent for the United States.
Most of China’s arms went to South Asia, with Pakistan and Bangladesh importing more than half of all Chinese major arms since 2010.
The testimony sounds the refrains of industry groups: Tightening the country’s smog standard would be too costly and isn’t necessary for public health.
But these comments weren’t from industry. They were written by the chairman of Texas’ environmental-protection agency.
The state is as aggressive as some trade associations in battling a proposed tightening of health standards for ozone, the lung-damaging gas in smog that costs billions of dollars to reduce. Officials there have spoken before Congress, hired a consultant to question the health benefits of a more stringent standard — a firm that did the same for the American Petroleum Institute — and introduced bills to fundamentally change how ozone is regulated nationwide.
This is a long-standing strategy for Texas, where power plants, cement factories, refineries and other facilities let loose far more ozone-causing pollutants from their stacks and vents than in any other state, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. Texas officials have butted heads with the EPA over ozone since the 1970s.
“They’ve been fairly consistently against clean-air protections,” said Elena Craft, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Though ozone levels are markedly better compared with past decades, parts of Texas have some of the nation’s highest readings. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental-protection agency, said in an emailed statement that it’s trying to ensure rules are necessary before they’re imposed. The agency, which goes by TCEQ, argues that the EPA has not proved ozone is harmful below the current standard of 75 parts per billion.
“TCEQ has concluded that there will be little to no public health benefit from lowering the current standard,” the agency’s chairman, Bryan Shaw, said in written testimony for a December Senate hearing.
It’s a stance public-health groups and medical associations do not share. The American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Thoracic Society— a respiratory disease group — are among those supporting a standard even lower than the 65 to 70 ppb the EPA proposed.
They’re concerned about studies linking ozone at concentrations below the current standard to health problems, particularly asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. Research also suggests ozone can increase the risk of cardiac arrest.
The independent advisory panel of scientists and doctors who review ozone studies for the EPA has recommended since 2006— under President and former Texas Gov. George W. Bush — that the standard be set between 60 and 70 ppb. Panel members warned last year that, even at 70 ppb, “there is substantial scientific evidence of adverse effects.”
Texas doctors have become increasingly vocal on the issue. This year the Dallas County Medical Society called on the EPA to tighten the standard and urged the state to take more aggressive actions to battle smog, rather than smog rules.
“Everyone’s aware of the really serious health effects in this area,” said Dr. Robert W. Haley, chief of the epidemiology division at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
An ozone powerhouse
Nitrogen oxides — NOx — and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, form ozone at ground level as they cook in the sun. Cars are a major source. Highway vehicles account for about 40 percent of NOx and 15 percent of VOCs in the United States, according to EPA figures tracking manmade emissions.
But power plants, factories, oil production and other industrial facilities are big contributors, too. That’s particularly true in Texas, according to 2011 EPA data, the most recent available.
Texas’ 340,000 tons of NOx emissions from facilities’ stacks and vents topped No. 2 Pennsylvania, home of big coal-fired power plants, by more than 60 percent.
At 105,000 tons, VOC emissions from facilities in Texas were 44 percent higher than No. 2 Colorado, even though Colorado — another oil and gas hub — had far more sources producing those pollutants.
Texas is a big state, second-highest in population, so its emissions can hardly be minuscule. But California, No. 1 in population and a major refining and manufacturing location, offers a striking contrast.
California has a greater number of facilities emitting NOx than any other state — more than twice what Texas has, according to the EPA data. And yet California’s collectively spew a quarter of the NOx emitted by Texas facilities. It’s a similar story with VOCs.
“Because we have had such a bad air-quality problem for many years, there’s been a lot of strict controls that have been put into place,” said Sylvia Vanderspek, chief of the air quality planning branch at California’s Air Resources Board. “So our stationary sources are very well controlled.”
The TCEQ points to Texas’ success reducing emissions and ozone. Annual NOx emissions from facilities totaled 900,000 tons as recently as 1998, and they’ve continued dropping since the EPA tally — now below 300,000, according to state data. VOCs have also been cut substantially, the state said.
Ozone levels have dropped as a result, improving 24 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to the TCEQ. That’s a bigger decrease than in all but six states, by Texas’ calculation, and came as the state added more than 5.5 million people and their ozone-contributing vehicles.
Still, California cut ozone levels faster.
Los Angeles and half a dozen other California communities still have the nation’s worst ozone levels. But the rest of the state was out-smogged by Texas’ Brazoria County, near Houston, and the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Denton County in 2011-2013, the most recent EPA data.
At 87 ppb, both counties’ ozone levels violated not only the current rule but the previous one, enacted 18 years ago.
Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas-office director of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, credited the state with doing “some very aggressive things” to attack smog caused by power plants, trucks and large industrial facilities. But “overall,” he said, “the state has failed to live up to its obligations to protect its citizens from poor air quality.”
Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas group that presses for clean air, contends that ozone improvements were made “over the state’s dead body.”
“We literally had to fight for every inch of progress we’ve gotten, and that’s why it’s taken so long,” he said.
The ozone fight
The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents 41 states and 116 localities, endorsed a tighter ozone standard this year. But Texas — which broke from that group years ago — isn’t alone in its objection. Some states, including western ones afflicted with ozone from California and Asia, have said the standard would be too hard to meet.
What makes Texas stand out is how consistently it has pushed back.
It sued the EPA in the 1970s over implementation of the nation’s first ozone rule. A Texas environmental-protection agency commissioner said in congressional testimony in 1995 — when the EPA was considering whether to tighten its loosest-ever ozone standard — that change wasn’t needed because ozone is “a relatively benign pollutant.” And the state prepared early for battle over the new threshold the EPA ultimately proposed in November.
In 2013, the TCEQ gave consulting firm Gradient a two-year contract worth up to $1.65 million to “critically review” the science behind the EPA’s standards for ozone and other air pollutants. Tighter rules “lead to a significant expenditure of state and local resources,” the agency said in its request for proposals.
This was not new ground for Massachusetts-based Gradient. The company wrote reports for the American Petroleum Institute, the Utility Air Regulatory Group and other industries in the last several years, arguing that the EPA overstated ozone risks by relying on studies with limitations. One challenge for scientists, for instance, is teasing out the effect of one pollutant among many. Gradient was also critical of the EPA’s conclusions in the run-up to 2008, the last time the agency tightened the ozone standard.
In a presentation for Texas in November, Gradient made similar points. Gradient principal Julie E. Goodman, a toxicologist who co-wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last year saying “the overwhelming body of scientific evidence” suggests the current standard is sufficient, pointed to study limitations and “inconsistent results.”
Goodman said by email that she came to her conclusions using a weight-of-evidence analysis, an effort to review what studies say and judge their quality.
Ozone researchers see the body of scientific evidence differently. The evidence of health risks above 60 ppb “is clear,” said Dr. Mary B. Rice, a pulmonary critical care physician at the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She’s found that herself in lung-function tests of healthy adults.
Lyndsey Darrow, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta, is the primary author of a recent study that found emergency-room trips for respiratory problems among young children rose as ozone did, even with levels below 60 ppb.
“That association with ozone is so consistent and doesn’t go away when we control for these other pollutants we have measures of,” Darrow said.
Craft, with the Environmental Defense Fund, is skeptical of how the Texas review judged studies. She wishes Texas spent that money on clean-air efforts instead.
She pointed to the state’s diesel-emissions grant program, which knocks out NOx at a cost of about $5,600 per ton.
“The agency has spent quite a lot of resources trying to basically do these re-analyses that don’t necessarily seem to be objective,” Craft said.
The TCEQ said in a statement that the review is worthwhile.
“It is important that the science on which the ozone NAAQS [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] level is based be accurate, and that the EPA demonstrate that further decreases in the ozone NAAQS level will produce measurable health benefits,” the agency said.
The cost of ozone
By law, the EPA must consider only public health when it sets its ozone standard, a threshold that determines when Americans get warnings about smog levels. Other issues such as cost are weighed later, as the agency works with states to implement the rule.
But cost is what businesses are worried about, and it’s a concern that Texas officials share.
Nine Texas members of Congress sponsored or co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required the EPA to weigh public health against expense when setting the threshold. The TCEQ’s chairman pointed in his congressional testimony to the economic impact of ozone reduction, quoting a National Association of Manufacturers analysis done for a standard below what the EPA ultimately proposed.
The issue is even on the mind of TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt. Honeycutt — who has argued that the effects of ozone are overblown in part because people are generally indoors, where ozone levels are substantially lower if windows are closed — shared an industry report with the agency’s air-quality director that details potential economic effects of a lower standard.
“You may find some of this interesting,” he wrote in the email, released to the Center after a public-information request.
The TCEQ did not make Honeycutt available for an interview. A different analysis — one performed by the TCEQ in 2010 — suggested that the costs of ozone reduction in the smog-challenged region of Houston, Galveston and Brazoria have not slammed the brakes on economic expansion.
“Over at least the past two decades, as the economy of the HGB area has grown, ozone concentrations have declined,” the agency said.
The report wasn’t written to ease fears over ozone efforts. It was aimed at convincing the EPA that the region’s ozone reductions during the last recession were part of a long trend.
Laura Jobe, a retired medical transcriptionist who lives near Houston, agreed that the area’s smog is improving, “but it’s not improving fast enough for me.” She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a serious lung condition aggravated by ozone.
She wishes she could afford to move.
“I don’t believe that people realize the damage done by dirty air,” said Jobe, 70.
MENLYN, South Africa —Rodney Wilkinson is nervous, insisting on a seat near the door of the Mugg & Bean restaurant in a suburban Pretoria shopping mall, ordering a beer before lunch, rushing from the table at one point to calm himself with a cigarette by a window.
By the end of his two-hour interview with a foreign reporter, the sunburned citrus farmer holds out his trembling hand.
“I didn’t shake at the time,” he said. “Now, just the thought of what I did makes me shake.”
Wilkinson planted four bombs that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the Koeberg nuclear power plant north of Capetown in December 1982, in what is arguably one of the most ambitious and successful terror attacks against a nuclear facility anywhere.
But Wilkinson is not a pariah in his homeland. While the United States is haunted by the carnage of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing many South Africans still revere anti-apartheid guerillas who bombed power plants, military targets and government offices as heroes, although some of the attacks caused civilian casualties.
This divergent history, some experts here say, partly explains why Pretoria and Washington don’t share the same level of concern about the threat of nuclear terror.
The difference of views is presently playing out in a dispute over over whether South Africa should relinquish a stock of nuclear explosives that were created by the apartheid regime and are still stored in a vault outside Pretoria that Washington claims is not as secure as it should be.
U.S. officials and independent Western experts say they are worried that the stock of highly-enriched uranium -- estimated by foreign experts to be around 485 pounds – could be stolen by terrorists, and so they have been quietly pressing Pretoria to convert the material into more benign nuclear reactor fuel. But South African president Jacob Zuma has refused, asserting that the material is valuable and adequately protected.
South African officials say that Washington overplays the threat of nuclear terror, and in doing so threatens to block access by smaller countries to uranium enrichment and other nuclear-related technologies. U.S. officials say in response that South Africa simply does not take seriously the risks created by these materials and technologies.
Gabrielle Hecht, a University of Michigan historian who published an award-winning book in 2012 about Africa’s nuclear programs, said the aphorism that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is relevant to the longstanding disagreement between Washington and Pretoria.
She said that difference in perspective, among. other important factors, makes nuclear security a lower priority for South Africa than the prospect of establishing energy and economic security from nuclear power, which might involve the use of enriched uranium
“It’s utterly unsurprising that the two nations would not be seeing eye to eye” on the threat of nuclear-related terror, Hecht said.
Jo-Ansie Van Wyk, an expert on South Africa’s nuclear policy who teaches international politics at the University of South Africa, added separately that she has military officers in her classes who still refer to themselves proudly as “terrorists,” the term the apartheid government used for ANC guerrillas .
“It’s a badge of honor. So how can you fight something that is your badge of honor?” she says.
One reason the Koeberg assault succeeded, one of its planners told the Center for Public Integrity, was because Wilkinson had detailed inside knowledge of the site’s vulnerability and security procedures.
Likewise, several U.S. officials said that a 2007 raid by two armed groups on South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear research site, where more than six bombs’ worth of nuclear explosives are stored, nearly succeeded because they, too, had help from one or more insiders.
Almost all known cases of theft of dangerous nuclear material involved an insider, according to a 2012 fact sheet issued by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration. Plant managers can be reluctant to recognize the risk of theft or sabotage, the report said, which are difficult to prevent. Workers with specialized skills, knowledge, access or authority can hide their actions, it warned, and co-workers may hesitate to turn in a renegade colleague.
Roger Johnston, a security expert who worked from 1992 to January 2015 for the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos and another federal nuclear research center in Illinois, said that nuclear plant workers may have a hard time accepting that a colleague represents a threat. “It’s always the bad outside guys, it’s never my coworker,” said Johnston, explaining the mindset. “It just doesn’t compute.”
Wilkinson, the insider who worked at Koeburg before blowing it up, told some of his story to South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper in the 1990s, but it isn’t widely known outside the country. After agreeing reluctantly to revisit the episode, he spoke candidly about the attack he carried out with the help of current and former South African officials.
Wilkinson, who is white, said he was a collegiate fencing champion whose hopes of competing in the Olympic games in the 1970s were crushed by international sanctions against the whites-only government. “I would have won a medal, without doubt,” he said, telling his story over the clattering of dishes in the restaurant.
After dropping out of college and serving briefly in the military in Angola, he said, he joined a commune near the Koeberg nuclear power station, then under construction north of Capetown. When he and the others ran short of cash, he said, he landed a job as a laborer helping build the twin-reactor plant.
For the anti-apartheid movement, Koeberg was a symbol of the racist regime’s nuclear ambitions, and therefore a legitimate target for ANC saboteurs. The government was well aware of this, and the construction site facing the southern Atlantic Ocean was subject to some of the tightest security of any locale in South Africa.
Nuclear-related terrorism is comparatively rare. But the 1970s and 1980s saw a series of bombings of nuclear power plants that were under construction, mostly for political rather than environmental reasons. Fifteen guerrillas stormed the building site of the Atucha-1 reactor in Argentina in 1973, wounding two guards of the five guards and seizing their weapons. They left, with the weapons, after painting political slogans on the walls.
Basque separatists repeatedly attacked Spain’s Lemoniz nuclear power station during its construction, planting bombs in 1978 and 1979 that killed three workers and caused millions of dollars in damages. The Lemoniz project was ultimately abandoned.
A Swiss anti-nuclear activist in 1982 fired five rocket-propelled grenades at the not-yet-completed Superphenix commercial plutonium breeder reactor in Creys-Malville, in eastern France. Two hit the plant, causing minor damage but no injuries.
Wilkinson’s sympathies lay with the ANC from the start, he said, but he was inspired to act, in part, by the 1979 arrest of Renfrew Christie, an ANC figure with a doctorate from Oxford who spent seven years in prison for spying on South Africa’s nuclear program.
After Wilkinson worked for months to get his hands on a copy of the blueprints for Koeberg, he said, he took them to neighboring Zimbabwe and handed them over to Sathyandranath “Mac” Maharaj, who along with four others was convicted in 1964 of more than 50 acts of sabotage against the apartheid government.
After serving 12 years in prison, Maharaj became a senior ANC official in exile. He is now the official spokesman for South African President Jacob Zuma, and in a telephone interview with the Center, confirmed Wilkinson’s account of his role in the Koeburg attack .
Maharaj first took steps to verify that the blueprints Wilkinson gave him were authentic. Then at a subsequent meeting, while sipping tea under a tree in a garden in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, he made a proposal that Wilkinson found startling.
The ANC wanted to bomb the plant before it was loaded with radioactive fuel, because after that an attack could release a plume of high-level radiation. “The purpose was to make a political statement and to cause as much damage as possible,” Wilkinson said. “We didn’t want to hurt anybody, and I completely didn’t want to get killed.”
Wilkinson said he assumed that the ANC would arrange for a saboteur to attack the plant, but he was mistaken. “Why don’t you do it?’” Maharaj asked Wilkinson, according to both of their accounts. “I nearly fell off my chair,” Wilkinson said. But he agreed.
Maharaj described the attack as a carefully planned “propaganda” operation designed to avoid casualties but meant to send the message to the apartheid regime that the ANC “had the capacity to strike anywhere in the country.”
He said he suggested that Wilkinson take on the task, rather than a trained guerilla, simply because the fencer had a better chance than anyone else of gaining access to Koeberg’s most vulnerable points.
“To attack Koeberg with a small rocket would have done very little damage,” Maharaj said, as similar assaults by militants in Europe had showed. But a saboteur armed with magnetic limpet mines and plans showing Koeberg’s most vulnerable areas, he said, could “do maximum damage.”
Likewise, insider help was critical to the teams of intruders who staged a November 2007 raid on Pelindaba.
The first team breached the fence at the site closest to the Emergency Operations Center, which served as the site’s central alarm station and repository for its keys. They showed expert knowledge of the site’s electronic security systems, and they were able to find a hidden latch securing a fire truck ladder, which they used to climb to the Center’s second-floor landing.
The raiders arrived, moreover, on a night when they may have expected little resistance, because the normal emergency center supervisor was not present, as CBS’s “60 Minutes” has reported. Pelindaba’s regular security forces never directly confronted the raiders, but a fireman who happened to be at the center struggled with them and they fled after shooting him.
Thirty-five years earlier, Wilkinson had much better luck.
He maneuvered himself into a job that called for mapping the plant’s miles of installed piping, allowing access to some of the most sensitive areas in the complex – without a background check. “They let me into the holy of holies without bothering to check me out,” he said. Officials at Eskom, the utility that built and still runs Koeberg, did not respond to requests for comment.
While conducting a detailed reconnaissance and receiving guidance from an ANC handler named Rashim about where and when to plant the bombs, Wilkinson said, he practiced smuggling bomb-sized objects – usually bottles of whiskey -- past the power station’s three rings of security.
He tucked the bottles under the dashboard of his yellow Renault while driving into the site and stuffed them into the crotch of his overalls before sneaking them past the guards and dogs at the fence surrounding the reactors. He practiced bypassing a security checkpoint between the two reactors, he said, by pushing the bottles past a plastic dust shield in a basement tunnel.
Even while working at Koeberg he never made any secret of his contempt for the apartheid regime and its nuclear program, he said, occasionally denouncing both the over drinks at the construction site’s whites-only recreation center and bar. But no alarms were sounded.
Finally in late 1982, he said, his handler told him he could find four Soviet-made limpet mines buried three feet deep under a tree facing a reservoir outside the complex. He dug them out, he said, and hauled them home in the Renault.
In mid-December, he said, he brought the mines to work – one a day— and placed two of them among bundles of electrical cables serving each of the twin reactors, he said, in order to destroy the plant’s electrical system. He also stuck the magnetic bombs to supports at the bottom of each of the two steel reactor vessels, he said.
Wilkinson said he planted the last bomb Friday, December 17, and set the timers on all four to go off a day later. Months earlier, he had announced he was quitting his job that day, and his co-workers threw a going-away party for him. He flew to Johannesburg that night, he said, where a relative drove him to a point close to the border with Swaziland.
As Wilkinson talked about his escape, almost 32 years after the fact, he wiped away a tear. He said he knew that if he was caught he could have been hanged.
Four blasts over the next two days made headlines around the world, caused $519 million in damages and postponed Koeberg’s opening by a year and a half. The ANC proudly claimed credit for the attack, which caused no injuries. Wilkinson was never caught or even identified as a suspect. The reason, he said, was simple: “It was because I was white.”
Wilkinson fled to Britain, where he lived for a time, but he later returned to help the ANC smuggle weapons into the country aboard tourist safari vehicles.
After the fall of apartheid, the activists who led the ANC – including its military wing – became top government officials.
Wilkinson was given a post with the government, and told his story to the Mail and Guardian newspaper. He was granted amnesty by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1999.
Christie, who recently retired as dean of research at the University of the Western Cape, said in an interview that today most South Africans still see Wilkinson as a hero. “He did it with enormous bravery,” Christie said. “And the crucial thing was that nobody was hurt.”
Are Wilkinson’s actions still considered heroic by the South African government? Maharaj said the bombing of the nuclear reactors was “one of the most significant armed propaganda actions” undertaken by the ANC. Wilkinson, Maharaj said, “was a man of tremendous initiative.”
But he ducked the question. “What happened around the time of apartheid,” Maharaj said, “is past tense, it is history.” And he declined to comment further.
Discussions between the United States and South Africa on nuclear and terrorism matters remain highly fractious. After the Pelindaba break-in, Washington pressed Pretoria to relinquish the stockpile of highly-enriched, bomb-grade uranium it stores there, which U.S. officials say was the likely target of the assailants. It essentially concluded the country could not be trusted to safeguard the material effectively.
But South Africa refuses to give the material up. So Washington persuaded the government here to upgrade security at the site, by offering to pay $8 million toward the cost while threatening to cancel shipments of nuclear fuel that South Africa uses to make medical isotopes.
The work was finished in 2014, but that didn’t satisfy the White House. Washington still sees the Pelindaba center as vulnerable to a security breach, a concern heightened by U.S. concerns South Africa could become a center for arms smuggling and terror groups. According to the State Department’s 2012 counterterrorism report, South African nationals have acted as al Qaida financiers and facilitators, and informal cash transfer businesses, called hawalas, widely used by South Africa’s large Muslim community, have likely transferred money to violent extremists in East Africa.
Meanwhile, the country’s security service has engaged in minimal cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism officials, according to the 2013 annual report, the most recent published.
“South Africa borders remain porous,” and terrorist groups have exploited the holes to move throughout the continent, the report said. “Due to allegations of corruption, attrition, the lack of receipt of timely intelligence requests, and bureaucracy within multiple South African law enforcement entities, [counterterrorism] challenges remain.”
This article was co-published with The Daily Beast.
Members of Congress took sides Tuesday in a long-running debate: What’s more costly, tightening the nation's smog standard or not tightening it?
Two key members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee summed up the opposing viewpoints during a Tuesday morning hearing. Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, argued that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed stricter limit for ozone — the lung-damaging gas in smog — could be economically “devastating.” U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the committee’s ranking member and a nurse, contended that illnesses aggravated by poor air quality “have a very real and destructive effect on the economy.”
The hearing came as the battle over the EPA proposal heats up. Eleven state governors urged the agency in a letter Monday to keep the current standard of 75 parts per billion. The American Petroleum Institute said in a press conference the same day that the standard “could be the costliest regulation ever imposed on the American public.”
Environmental group Earthjustice said on Tuesday — the final day to submit comments to the EPA — that more than 500,000 people had written to support the proposed tighter standard of 65 to 70 ppb, or an even stricter limit. The EPA is under court order to act by Oct. 1.
A Center for Public Integrity investigation found that many communities have ozone at levels research shows is unhealthy, that most arguments about the standards echo those made over the past four decades, and that Texas — the state with the most ozone-causing emissions from power plants and other facilities — is as aggressive as trade groups in pushing back against tighter limits.
Johnson, who represents the smog-challenged Dallas area, cited the project at Tuesday’s hearing. She doesn’t agree with arguments made by industry groups and some states that a tighter ozone standard would cause major economic disruption.
“It’s what’s been said for decades about every major environmental and consumer protection — from catalytic converters to scrubbers to seatbelts,” she said. “We all know that none of those predictions have come true.”
Smith, whose district includes parts of San Antonio, puts more stock in the warnings about ozone rules’ ripple effects. He contended that the “burdensome permitting and compliance obligations” that come when an area is deemed out of attainment with the standard pose a serious economic problem. The timing is bad, he added. More than 150 counties have ozone levels topping the 2008 standard, which was looser than the EPA’s independent scientific advisory panel had recommended.
“The air we breathe is significantly cleaner and will continue to improve thanks to new technologies,” Smith said. “However, it is premature and unnecessary for the EPA to propose a new standard when we have not yet given states the opportunity to meet the 2008 standard.”
Only one of the five hearing witnesses — the sole health professional — came out in favor of a stricter standard. Dr. Mary B. Rice, a pulmonary critical care physician at the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said the cost of ozone includes medical bills, hospitalizations, missed work days and premature death.
Another witness, Allen S. Lefohn, president of air-quality consulting firm A.S.L. & Associates in Montana, warned that the amount of ozone communities can’t control — because it comes from elsewhere or is naturally occurring — is particularly high in the West. That could complicate efforts to reduce ozone, he said.
“We could shut everything down in the desert — no industry, no transportation, no housing, no nothing — and we would still have exceedances of the 2008 standard,” said witness Eldon Heaston, who heads two California air quality management districts downwind of the high-ozone Los Angeles region.
Witnesses and committee members also pointed to the EPA’s reliance on as-of-yet unknown pollution control technology in its proposal.
That troubles some air-quality officials, including Heaston, who said “you’re looking into the future with promises of some sort of deposit that you may not be able to withdraw later.” But the American Lung Association, in an earlier interview, said technology typically follows new standards, rather than the other way around.
That’s part of what Congress intended with the Clean Air Act, said Janice Nolen, the group’s assistant vice president of national policy.
“As a result, we have equipment, we have tools, we have systems that would not have existed if we had not had this reason to get cleaner air,” she said.
Rep. Aaron Schock, who announced his resignation today under suspicion of misusing public money, will be eligible for more of it in retirement.
Schock, a Republican from Illinois, could eventually collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded retirement benefits, depending on how long he lives.
Starting at age 62, he will be eligible for just under $18,500 annually, according to estimates by the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative nonprofit organization.
Douglas Kellogg, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, added that members of Congress are also eligible for a 401(k)-style plan, but it’s unknown whether Schock has chosen to participate in it.
According to a June report from the Congressional Research Service, members of Congress who have completed at least five years of service are eligible for taxpayer-funded pensions beginning at age 62.
The amount of a former congressional member’s pension varies, but the payout is based on the number of years of service and an average of the member’s three highest years of salary.
Being a former member of Congress carries other perks, too, including access to the House floor.
In recent weeks, Schock has been hit with repeated questions about his spending.
He repaid the government $40,000, money he spent redecorating his office along a theme inspired by “Downton Abbey,” a PBS historical drama, and fielded inquiries about his charter plane use, luxury overseas travel, personal photographer and concert tickets.
Today, Politicoreported Schock has been reimbursed for more in mileage than his car had been driven.
“The constant questions over the last six weeks have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve and which I have set for myself,” Schock said in a statement today.
An email to Schock's spokesman wasn't immediately returned.
Schock was first elected in 2008. His resignation will abruptly end ongoing congressional ethics investigations into his activities, although federal prosecutors could conceivably pursue the matter. Schock has not been charged with any crime.
The Federal Election Commission could also probe related accusations that Schock misused campaign money.
Like millions of others, I’m an admirer of the modern history of South Africa: its nonviolent transition from a racist system to multiracial democracy; Nelson Mandela’s decision after decades in prison to reject bitterness for reconciliation; its unique status as a country that voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons arsenal. Both the United States and South Africa champion nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament in public statements.
I was surprised, as a result, to discover the depth of the diplomatic discord between the United States and South Africa about an issue on which I expected the two countries to see eye-to-eye: the U.S. campaign to persuade countries to eliminate stocks of uranium that could be used to build nuclear bombs.
As National Security Editor R. Jeffrey Smith and I found after interviews with more than 65 officials, experts and other sources from both countries over a period of ten months, South Africa has about a quarter-ton of uranium from its former nuclear weapons program that could be readily used to build bombs.
While South African officials admit they currently have no practical use for this dangerous material, they’ve refused entreaties by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama to get rid of it. We wrote about these fractious conversations in three abbreviated articles published this week as part of our continuing investigative series entitled "Nuclear Waste." A more detailed account of an alarming raid on the Pelindaba site holding South Africa's weapons-usable materials by two armed groups will be published by us on Friday, March 20.
No current or former U.S. official we talked to expressed concern that South Africa wants to rebuild its nuclear weapons. But the United States has been pushing for decades to clear out stocks of highly-enriched uranium around the world, out of concern they could be stolen or seized, and ultimately be used by terrorists.
We also discovered that the United States considers South Africa’s stock of uranium as one of the most vulnerable in the world, because of its size and because the uranium exists in a form that is particularly easy to adapt for use in a weapon, including an unsophisticated one.
Another major concern, we learned, was that South Africa had reacted fairly passively to a November 2007 break-in at the Pelindaba nuclear research center, outside Pretoria, where the uranium is stored. While officials there publicly dismissed the incident as a botched burglary attempt, U.S. officials came to suspect that the tightly-organized raid targeted the uranium, with inside help.
So what would South African officials tell me when I finally met them face-to-face? What lay behind South Africa’s defiant stance? What was Pelindaba like? These were the questions I had in October when, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean and the Equator, I finally landed at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
Q: What was South Africa like?
My view of the country was limited to Johannesburg, Pretoria and the scrubland around Pelindaba. My only previous visit was a one-day layover in the late 1990s, when I spent the night at a Johannesburg amusement park called Gold Reef City. (It was the only amusement park I have ever visited with its own gun shop, and the only one with its own working church: I woke up that Sunday morning to hymns sung in a beautiful African chorus.)
During my October trip, from my narrow view, the country seemed to be in the midst of a boom. Within a mile of sprawling shantytown, littered with blue plastic port-a-johns, was a gleaming new middle-class townhouse complex. I was told there were mansions in Soweto and saw gleaming new high-rises nearby. The expansive freeways, a general air of optimism, the semi-desert climate, the frankness and openness of most South Africans I met— blacks, whites and everyone else — all reminded me of the Southern California in the 1960s, where I was born and lived as a teenager. The country is very proud of its status as a multi-racial democracy, and I was struck by how integrated social gatherings were — more so, it seemed to me, than at many similar events in the United States.
Q: What is Pelindaba like?
The center, built during the apartheid era, has the half-deserted feel of a rural college campus during summer vacation. It’s spread over 118 acres, with more than 30 industrial and office buildings clustered for the most part on two adjacent hilltops. The rolling countryside is dotted with acacia trees and rocky outcrops. A monkey wandered into the hall outside the office where I was preparing for an interview, and I saw warthogs graze on several of Pelindaba’s lawns. We were told that because of the site’s 6.8-mile protective fence, many other animals take sanctuary there, including springbok, or antelope-gazelle, and various poisonous snakes. I’m happy to say I never ran into those.
Q: What did you do there?
I talked to South African officials about their highly-enriched uranium and about the security at the plant. They gave me a guided tour of the Safari-1 research reactor where the South African nuclear program was born. During the 1960s and 1970s, the United States supplied it with weapons-grade uranium fuel, even as South Africa launched its secret nuclear weapons program. (All of the American-supplied uranium has been returned.) After South Africa dismantled its bombs, it used some of its own highly-enriched uranium to make medical isotopes at Safari-1. But by 2009, South Africa had converted that reactor to operate with low-enriched fuel and so it no longer consumes significant amounts of the weapons material. Inside the reactor, I looked into the cooling pool and saw the incandescent-blue light of Cherenkov radiation, an eerie effect caused by electrons passing through the water at a speed faster than the speed of light through water. (Nothing moves faster than light in a vacuum of course.) I was not shown the vault where the uranium is held. I was told that was too sensitive.
Q: Was security tight at Pelindaba?
Maybe I just happened to arrive on days when the technology wasn’t working, but both times I had meetings inside the fence the fingerprint reader at the gate didn’t work and the guards had to wave me through. (I assume this was breaking the rules.) After being admitted on one of these visits, a South African colleague and I drove around unescorted through the site and at one point we had to ask directions. We never entered the most secure area, where the uranium vault is presumably located. But overall the experience didn’t inspire confidence.
Q: Don’t South African officials take the security of their uranium seriously?
There is an array of gates, guards and detectors protecting the perimeter of Pelindaba today, and on paper it is more secure than it was in 2007. But the United States worries that South African officials don’t take the issue as seriously as they should. Several South African officials told me they don’t regard nuclear terrorism as a major threat to their nation. In the United States, of course, prevention of a nuclear-armed terror attack is one of the highest — if not the highest — national security priorities.
Q: Were officials in South Africa willing to discuss these topics, or wary of engaging with a reporter from Washington?
South African nuclear officials were generally welcoming, while those in the foreign ministry and the security services were extremely difficult to reach. The president’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, was very talkative and helpful on one aspect of the story, but he did not want to talk at all about the conflict with the United States over South Africa’s uranium.
I called a series of high-ranking police officials, each of which referred me to another, and none of whom would talk to me. I spent a frustrating hour driving through downtown Pretoria searching for the South African Police Service headquarters, which is located in what appears to be a commercial building, only to be rebuffed when I found the reception desk. Repeated requests for the police file in the case were ignored: I later learned, from an official at Pelindaba, that the case is still officially open.
South Africans hate to say no. In several cases, when I reached potential sources, they would politely ask me to call back later and then never answer my repeated calls.
Q: Is the security of nuclear explosives better in the United States?
Officials in the United States certainly worry about it more. Experts say there are gaps in every system, no matter how sophisticated, and at nuclear sites in particular the security should constantly be tested and improved. An unarmed 82-year-old nun and two other Catholic pacifists managed in July 2012 to scrawl graffiti on the walls of a huge warehouse for weapons uranium at the Y-12 complex, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after cutting their way through fences and evading what should have been some of the tightest security in the world. They staged their peaceful raid just over a year after South African officials – under U.S. pressure to ramp up security at Pelindaba — were given a tour of Y-12. “I was very impressed” by Y-12’s security during the tour, said one of the South Africans on that tour, speaking to me on condition his name not be used. “And then you read about this idiotic adventure. [With] the nun? Please. I had a bit of — what’s the German word? — schadenfreude.” The term means “joy at the misfortune of others.”
Q: You went to Geneva as well. Why?
I spent a day there to meet the man credited with creating Democratic South Africa’s nuclear arms control and nonproliferation policies, Ambassador Abdul Minty. He previously served as South Africa’s representative to the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and ran unsuccessfully in 2009 for the job of director general. Minty now represents South Africa at the many United Nations agencies based in Geneva. He very graciously invited me to tea in his office, located near the glittering lakefront. Minty is a tireless advocate for rapid global nuclear disarmament, who nevertheless questions U.S. nonproliferation goals on the ground that they impose too many restrictions and costs on the nuclear programs of the non-weapons states. He feels that efforts to restrict the spread of uranium and plutonium fuel technology, for example, are discriminatory. “Disarming the disarmed,” he has called it. At the same time, he says, the nuclear weapons states are moving too slowly toward disarmament, as they promised to do in the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Q: Crime in South Africa gets a lot of publicity. Did you find that a problem?
The unemployment rate is 25 percent, and there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor. In a tradition that dates from the apartheid era, many middle-class people live behind high walls in gated and guarded communities, and there are frequent television advertisements for security gates. Several of those I spoke to told scary stories about hijackings and home invasions, which they said they had read about or heard from friends. But I never saw any crime, and never felt threatened during my two week stay.
Q: What did you do in your spare time?
I stayed in a hotel built to resemble a British hunting lodge, located in the Sandton neighborhood of Johannesburg, which boosters call “Africa’s richest square mile.” The restaurant served grilled steaks and Namibian beer. Some evenings, I walked to Nelson Mandela Square, which I was surprised to find lies in the center of a luxury shopping mall, and ate at an international chain restaurant under the gaze of a giant Mandela statue.
Eleven potential Republican presidential candidates, several media titans and a gaggle of top political donors ranked among attendees this month of a secretive politics and policy conference, according to an attendee roster obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Likely White House hopefuls listed as participants include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Amb. John Bolton.
Their names, along with about 300 others, appear within disclosure documents filed today by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii — who, along with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, was one of the handful of Democrats who participated in the annual conference sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The "World Forum" event, conducted March 5 through March 8 at a luxurious resort in Sea Island, Georgia, has been conducted annually since 1982.
Sessions at the invitation-only, off-the-record affair came with such titles as "Campaign 2016: What to Expect," "The Shape of Education Reform in the Post-Obama Era" and "Bipartisan Agreement in Economic Policy."
Among the top Republican bankrollers and fundraisers on the attendees roster: political consultant Karl Rove, coal king Joe Craft, real estate developer Harlan Crow, Goldman Sachs executive Jim Donovan, businessman Sam Fox, brokerage executive Joe Ricketts, who founded what's now TD Ameritrade.
They joined World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon, former Facebook executive Sean Parker, developer Ross Perot Jr. — son of 1992 presidential candidate H. Ross Perot — and businessman Dick DeVos, who leads the direct-selling giant Amway that specializes in health and beauty products.
Media figures include Rupert Murdoch, whose corporate empire controls Fox News and the Wall Street Journal among other media outlets, and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Add Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, former CNN journalist Campbell Brown and New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks to the list, as well.
Other bold-faced names include former Vice President Dick Cheney, former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, soon-to-be former Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois and Chick-fil-A honcho Dan Cathy.
Legistorm first reported that House Majority Leader Steve Scalise — who has faced withering criticism of late for once speaking before a white supremacist group — skipped the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Selma, Alabama, civil rights march to attend the conference.
The American Enterprise Institute conference stands in start contrast to other early-year conservative gatherings such as the annual Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, D.C., which is open to the public and press.
Judy Mayka Stecker, an American Enterprise Institute spokeswoman, previously told the Center for Public Integrity that "the event is private and off-the-record" in order to "maintain intellectual freedom and free discourse."
As a sitting member of Congress, Gabbard was required to file disclosure documents with the U.S. House because the American Enterprise Institute paid for her travel, lodging and meals. Gabbard reported their value was about $3,700.