British explorer Lewis Pugh has spoken about his aim to paddle a kayak from Norway to the North Pole.
He is attempting the feat as part of his campaign to draw attention to the disappearing ice in the Arctic.
British explorer Lewis Pugh has spoken about his aim to paddle a kayak from Norway to the North Pole.
He is attempting the feat as part of his campaign to draw attention to the disappearing ice in the Arctic.
Limited availability of fresh water is often overlooked as a cause of food scarcity and environmental decline, according to Colin Chartres. Governments should be ramping up efforts to make sure we have enough to grow crops as well as enough to drink, he argues.
Essentially, every calorie of food requires a litre of water to produce it
This year, the world and, in particular, developing countries and the poor have been hit by both food and energy crises.
As a consequence, prices for many staple foods have risen by up to 100%.
When we examine the causes of the food crisis, there are many contributing factors: a growing population, changes in trade patterns, urbanisation, dietary habits, biofuel production, climate change and regional droughts.
Thus, we have a classic increase in prices as a result of high demand and low supply. However, few commentators specifically mention the declining availability of water that is needed to grow irrigated and rain-fed crops.
According to some, the often mooted solution to the food crisis lies in plant breeding that produces the ultimate high yielding, low water-consuming crops.
While this solution is important, it will fail unless attention is paid to where the water for all the food, fibre and energy crops is going to come from.
The causes of water scarcity are essentially identical to those of the food crisis.
There are serious and extremely worrying factors that indicate water supplies are close to exhaustion in some countries.
Human needs for water have to be balanced against nature’s needs
Population growth over the next four decades will see the number of people in the world increase from 6.5 billion up to 9.0 billion.
Essentially, every calorie of food requires a litre of water to produce it.
So on average, we require between 2,000 and 3,000 litres of water per person to sustain our daily food requirements.
We will have 2.5 billion extra mouths to feed by 2050, so finding the extra water each year will not be an easy task, given that it is more than double what is currently used in irrigation.
We also have to bear in mind that the availability of new fertile land in humid areas for rain-fed farming is extremely limited.
Recent studies, as part of the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, have indicated that we will not be able to produce all the food, feed and fibre required in 2050 unless we improve the way we manage water.
Invest and survive
A few years ago, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) demonstrated that many countries are facing severe water scarcity, either as a result of a lack of available freshwater, or as a consequence of a lack of investment in infrastructure such as dams and reservoirs.
Current estimates indicate that we will not have enough water to feed ourselves in 40 years time
What makes matters worse is that this scarcity predominantly affects developing countries where the majority of the world’s 840 million undernourished people live.
However, there are potential solutions. These include more water storage, improved management of irrigation systems and increasing water productivity in irrigated and rain-fed farming systems.
All of these will require investment in knowledge, infrastructure and human capacity.
Better water storage has to be considered. Ethiopia, which is typical of many sub-Saharan African countries, has a storage capacity of 38 cubic metres per person.
In contrast, Australia has almost 5,000 cubic metres per person, an amount that in the face of current climate change impacts may be inadequate.
Whilst there will be a need for new large and medium-sized dams to deal with this critical lack of storage in Africa, other simpler solutions will also be part of the equation.
Governments should make sure water infrastructure is up to standard
These include the construction of small reservoirs, sustainable use of groundwater systems including artificial groundwater recharge, and rainwater harvesting for smallholder vegetable gardens.
Improved year-round access to water will help farmers maintain their own food security using simple supplementary irrigation techniques.
The redesign of both the physical and institutional arrangements of some large and often dysfunctional irrigation schemes will also bring the required productivity increases.
Safe, risk-free re-use of wastewater from growing cities will also be needed.
Of course, these actions need to be paralleled by development of drought-tolerant crops, and the provision of infrastructure and facilities to get fresh food to markets.
Since the formulation of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), much of the water agenda has been focused around the provision of drinking water and sanitation.
This puts demand on the same resources as agricultural water; and as we urbanise and improve living standards, increasing competition for drinking water from domestic and other urban users will put agriculture under further pressure.
While improving drinking water and sanitation is vital with respect to health and living standards, we cannot afford to neglect the provision and improved productivity of water for agriculture.
Current estimates indicate that we will not have enough water to feed ourselves in 40 years’ time, by when the current food crisis may turn into a perpetual crisis.
Just as in other areas of agricultural research and development, investment in the provision and better management of water resources has declined steadily since the Green Revolution.
My water science colleagues and I are raising a warning flag that significant investment in both research and development and water infrastructure development is needed if dire consequences are to be avoided.
Dr Colin Chartres is director-general of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a not-for-profit research organisation focusing on the sustainable management of water resources for food, livelihoods and the environment
To read the summary of “Water for Food, Water for Life”, visit http://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/Assessment
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008; Page A02
NOME, Alaska — Hubert Kokuluk squints with his one good eye to examine the tiny polar bear he has just carved from a fragment of walrus tusk. He isn’t happy with the yellowish hue, but good ivory is hard to come by these days, since quickly melting sea ice has made it extremely difficult for his Inupiaq Eskimo community to carry out the traditional annual spring walrus hun
Though walruses are federally protected, Alaska Natives have subsistence rights to hunt them and rely on the meat, skin, intestines and tusks — for food, clothing and boat coverings, and to carve the ivory jewelry and souvenirs that are a signficant source of income.
Over the past few decades, Kokuluk and the other residents of King Island, a steep rocky knoll poking out of the Bering Sea, have left the island for a more hospitable existence in Nome. They return to the waters of King Island each spring to hunt walruses, which are moving north as the sea ice they depend on melts and recedes.
But in the past few years their economic circumstances have worsened. A warming climate melts the sea ice more rapidly, thinning the walrus herds and forcing native hunters to travel greater distances to track their prey.
As the ice has melted, the window of time in which the hunters can pursue the walrus is much shorter — about three weeks, compared with two months in better years. This past year, the King Islanders of Nome did not get a single walrus, meaning they will have to do without walrus meat this winter and will have to buy ivory to carve, for about $50 a pound.
“This is the only way we make our living — things are getting tougher and tougher,” Kokuluk said. “I don’t know what we’ll do if we don’t hunt walrus.”
The lack of walruses exacerbates the financial crunch Alaska Natives in isolated villages and towns are already feeling from rising energy prices.
Most live a hybrid of traditional and modern lifestyles, depending on heating oil to warm their homes and gasoline to power boats and snowmobiles. Gas can be more than $8 a gallon in remote areas, and prices for food, clothing and other goods have risen sharply because of the cost of transport.
“Hubert needs to finish those carvings today and sell them today, and only then can he go to the grocery store,” said Marilyn Koezuna-Irelan, president of the Nome Native Arts Center. It is slated to open later this year and will give carvers a venue to sell their work without going through middlemen, who take a substantial cut.
The Arctic has always been subject to extreme climactic shifts, but polar scientists and Native observers say the earlier melting of sea ice has been a notable trend over the past decade. In 2007, summer sea ice was at record low levels. This past winter and summer were colder than usual in Alaska, but sea ice still melted quickly.
“This winter, the maximum ice cover in the Bering Sea was actually above normal, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t retreat rapidly in summer,” said Hajo Eicken, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks geophysics professor involved in a recently launched international effort to catalogue the effects of sea ice changes on users, including Native communities.
Floating chunks of ice and high winds can make traveling in the 16-foot aluminum boats they use for hunting very dangerous. A shorter potential hunting period also forces Natives to take more risks with the weather.
Though drops in walrus population haven’t been documented, scientists and Natives are afraid the ripple effects of climate change could thin walrus numbers.
Walrus need to rest on sea ice no more than 400 feet above the ocean floor so they can dive down to eat shellfish and plants. But sea ice is retreating so far north that the waters are too deep for walrus to feed. This forces them to squeeze onto land, and last summer about 4,000 young walruses were trampled to death by males in the crowded conditions.
“On land, they are really vulnerable to predators and to being trampled by big males; when a human or polar bear shows up, they panic and stampede,” said Shaye Wolf, a staff biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is petitioning for an Endangered Species Act listing for the walrus.
Hunter Sylvester Ayek said that 25 years ago, walruses could be hunted off King Island in July; now they are gone by May. He is considering leaving a boat at King Island this fall, then taking a helicopter there in the spring to get a head start on hunting.
“That’s the only way we’ll be able to get the walrus next year,” he said.
August 31, 2008 |
Ethnicity and Local Governance Cambodia (ELGC), a research project that analyzes state-minority relations in Cambodia, has published a report on the World Bank’s involvement and complicity in the destruction of Indigenous Peoples rights in Cambodia.
Titled, “Money Now, Compliance Later: Worldbank-Support to Decentralization in Cambodia and Indigenous Peoples,” the detailed report reveals a series of “blunders” involving the Worldbank-support Rural Investment and Local Governance Project (RILGP) in Cambodia.
One such blunder is the RILGP policy toward the negative impacts of development and the projects that have been requested by indigenous peoples.
“[A] Screening Study in 2002 included an assessment of the types of projects and activities most urgently needed by indigenous peoples,” the ELGC report explains. “42 indigenous discussion groups were asked to list the top 5 indigenous priority needs. Here is the result of the Bank-commissioned assessment (number in brackets indicates number of discussion groups who ranked the particular need among the top 5 priorities):
“Significant negative socioeconomic impacts were identified only for one type of project, road infrastructure, a need prioritized by only a minority of groups, as follows:
“The discussion groups did identify potential negative impacts associated with road projects. These potential negative impacts can be listed as follows:
- That some bad and clever outsiders may come after the road is built and exploit the assets of the village.
- That outsiders may come and take their land.
- That the road may lead to their forests being destroyed or degraded by (sometimes armed) outsiders and it will then be difficult to find forest food and forest products to sell.
Possible land appropriation and deforestation following road construction is a major potential negative socioeconomic impact. There are cases where such negative impacts, particularly in terms of deforestation, have occurred following road construction in forest dependent communities … . Many forest areas have already been degraded in areas with poor road infrastructure. However, improved roads can accelerate that process and open new areas for exploitation by a larger number of logging interests” (Screening Study: 136).
The ELGC goes on to say these negative impacts clearly hold a potential to cause great damage to indigenous societies.
The Screening Study offers series of recommendations on how the RILGP can mitigate or prevent these damages.
The RILGP, however, refuses to incorporate the recommendations, choosing instead to deny that there are even any problems. “The small-scale activities chosen by villagers and funded through RILGP will not affect land tenure or otherwise cause any direct adverse impacts,” they state.
It’s doubly absurd since just a few paragraphs later, they say that “prior assessment of the appropriateness and impacts… is impossible” because the “RILGP would empower local communities to determine their own development priorities.”
In other words, by their own logic, it is impossible to determine whether or not there are any adverse impacts. That is, unless there are some adverse impacts, in which case there really aren’t any.
The ELGC goes on to list a number of similar contradictory, as well as fraudulent and exclusionary policies maintained by the RILGP.
Overall, they are policies that threaten to disintegrate the cultures of Indigenous People in Cambodia, and that help to remove them from having control over their own lives and rights to their lands and resources.
Since I posted on April 28 the article “Is There an Army Cover Up of the Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers,” the deaths of two more U.S. Army women in Iraq and Afghanistan have been listed as suicides-the Sept. 28, 2007, death of 30-year-old Spc. Ciara Durkin and the Feb. 22, 2008, death of 25-year-old Spc. Keisha Morgan. Both “suicides” are disputed by the families of the women.
Since April 2008, five more U.S. military women have died in Iraq-three in noncombat-related incidents. Ninety-nine U.S., six British and one Ukrainian military women and 13 U.S. female civilians have been killed in Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as probably hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women and girls. Of the 99 U.S. military women, 64 were in the Army active component, nine in the Army National Guard, seven in the Army Reserve, seven in the Marine Corps, nine in the Navy and three in the Air Force. According to the Department of Defense, 41 of the 99 U.S. military women who have been killed in Iraq died in “noncombat-related incidents.” Of the 99 U.S. military women killed in the Iraq theater, 41 were women of color (21 African-Americans, 16 Latinas, three of Asian-Pacific descent and one Native American-data compiled from the Web site www.nooniefortin.com).
Fourteen U.S. military women, including five in the Army, one in the Army National Guard, two in the Army Reserves, three in the Air Force, two in the Navy (on ships supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan) and one in the Marine Corps, one British military woman and six U.S. civilian women have been killed in Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, four U.S. military women in Afghanistan died in noncombat-related incidents, including one now classified as a suicide. Four military women of color (three African-Americans and one Latina) have been killed in Afghanistan. (Data compiled from www.nooniefortin.com.)
The deaths of 14 U.S. military (13 Army and one Navy) women and one British military woman who served in Iraq, Kuwait or Afghanistan have been classified as suicides.
Two Army women in Iraq (Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney, a victim of vehicular homicide, and Pfc. Kamisha Block, who was shot five times by a fellow soldier who then killed himself) and two Navy women in Bahrain (MASN Anamarie Camacho and MASN Genesia Gresham, both shot by a male sailor who then shot, but did not kill, himself) have died at the hands of fellow military personnel.
Several more military women have died with unexplained “noncombat” gunshot wounds (U.S. Army Sgt. Melissa Valles, July 9, 2003: gunshot to the abdomen; Marine Lance Cpl. Juana Arellano, April 8, 2006: gunshot wound to the head while in a “defensive position”). Most of the deaths of women who have died of noncombat gunshot wounds have been classified as suicides, rather than homicides.
The Army, the only military service to release annual figures on suicides, reported that 115 soldiers committed suicide in 2007. According to Army figures, 32 soldiers committed suicide in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. Of the 115 Army suicides, 93 were in the Regular Army and 22 were in the Army National Guard or Reserves. The report lists five Army women as having committed suicide in 2007. Young, white, unmarried junior enlisted troops were the most likely to commit suicide, according to the report (Pauline Jelinek, “Soldier suicides hit highest rate, 115 last year,” Associated Press, May 29, 2008, abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory?id=4955043).
From 2003 until August 2008, the deaths of 13 Army women and one Navy woman in Iraq and Afghanistan (including Kuwait and Bahrain) have been classified as suicides (numbers confirmed with various media sources):
2008-Spc. Keisha Morgan (Taji, Iraq)
2007-Spc. Ciara Durkin (Bagram, Afghanistan), Capt. (medical doctor) Roselle Hoffmaster (Kirkik, Iraq)
2006-Pfc. Tina Priest (Taji, Iraq), Pfc. Amy Duerkson (Taji, Iraq), Sgt. Denise Lannaman (Kuwait), Sgt. Jeannette Dunn (Taji, Iraq), Maj. Gloria Davis (Baghdad).
2005-Pvt. Lavena Johnson (Balad, Iraq), 1st Lt. Debra Banaszak (Kuwait), USN MA1 Jennifer Valdivia (Bahrain)
2004-Sgt. Gina Sparks (it is unclear where in Iraq she was injured, but she died in the Fort Polk, La., hospital)
2003-Spc. Alyssa Peterson (Tal Afar, Iraq), Sgt. Melissa Valles (Balad, Iraq)
The demographics of those Army women who allegedly committed suicide are as intriguing as the circumstances of their deaths:
— Seven of the women, being between the ages of 30 and 47, were older than the norm (Davis, 47; Lannaman, 46; Dunn, 44; Banaszak, 35; Hoffmaster, 32; Sparks, 32; and Durkin, 30). (Most military suicides are in their 20s).
— Three were officers: a major (Davis), a captain and medical doctor (Hoffmaster) and a first lieutenant (Banaszak).
— Five were noncommissioned officers (Lannaman, Dunn, Sparks, Valles and Valdivia).
— Five were women of color (Morgan, Davis, Johnson, Lannaman, Valles).
— Four were from units based at Fort Hood, Texas, and were found dead at Camp Taji, Iraq (Dunn, Priest, Duerkson, and Morgan).
— Two were found dead at Camp Taji, Iraq, 11 days apart (Priest and Duerkson).
— Two were found dead at Balad, Iraq (Johnson and Valles).
— Two had been raped (Priest, 11 days prior to her death; Duerksen, during basic training).
— One other was probably raped (Johnson, the night she died).
— Two were lesbians (Lannaman and Durkin).
— Two of the women were allegedly involved in bribes or shakedowns of contractors (Lannaman and Davis).
— Two had children (Davis and Banaszak).
— Three had expressed concerns about improprieties or irregularities in their commands (Durkin’s concerns were financial; Davis had given a seven-page deposition on contracting irregularities in Iraq the day before she died; Peterson was concerned about methods of interrogation of Iraqi prisoners).
— Several had been in touch with their families within days of their deaths and had not expressed feelings of depression (Morgan, Durkin, Davis, Priest, Johnson).
The Death of Lavena Johnson
As discussed in my article “Is There an Army Cover Up of Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers?,” 19-year-old Army Pvt. Lavena Johnson was found dead on the military base in Balad, Iraq, in July 2005, and her death was characterized by the Army as suicide from an M-16 rifle gunshot. From the day their daughter’s body was returned to them, the parents, both of whom have had a long association with the Army-the father, a medical doctor, is an Army veteran and worked 25 years as a Department of the Army civilian and the mother, too, worked for the Department of the Army-harbored grave suspicions about the Army’s investigation into Johnson’s death and the Army’s characterization of her death as suicide. As she had been in charge of a communications facility, Johnson was able to call home daily; in those calls, she gave no indication of emotional problems or being upset. In a letter to her parents after her death, Johnson’s commanding officer, Capt. David Woods, wrote, “Lavena was clearly happy and seemed in very good health both physically and emotionally.”
In viewing his daughter’s body at the funeral home, Dr. John Johnson was concerned about the bruising on her face. He was puzzled by the discrepancy in the autopsy report on the location of the gunshot wound. As an Army veteran and a long-time Army civilian employee who had counseled veterans, he was mystified how the exit wound of an M-16 shot could be so small. The hole in Lavena’s head appeared to be more the size of a pistol shot rather than an M-16 round. But the gluing of military uniform white gloves onto Lavena’s hands, hiding burns on one of her hands, is what deepened Dr. Johnson’s concerns that the Army’s investigation into the death of his daughter was flawed.
Over the next two and a half years, Dr. and Mrs. Johnson and their family and friends, through the Freedom of Information Act and congressional offices, relentlessly and meticulously requested documents concerning Lavena’s death from the Department of the Army. Gradually, with the Army’s response to each request for information, another piece of evidence about Johnson’s death emerged.
The military criminal investigator’s initial drawing of the death scene revealed that Johnson’s M16 was found perfectly parallel to her body. The investigator’s sketch showed that her body was found inside a burning tent, under a wooden bench with an aerosol can nearby. A witness, an employee of the defense contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), stated that he heard a gunshot and when he went to investigate, he found a KBR tent on fire. When he looked into the tent, he saw a body. The official Army investigation did not mention a fire, nor that Johnson’s body had been pulled from the fire.
KBR Women Employees Raped in Iraq
The fact that Lavena Johnson’s body was discovered in a KBR tent raises questions.
Many KBR women employees have been raped in Iraq. One law firm in Houston has 15 clients with sexual assault, sexual harassment or retaliation complaints against Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC (KBR), as well as against the Cayman Island-based Service Employees International Inc., a KBR shell company (Karen Houppert, “Another KBR Rape Case,” The Nation, April 3, 2008).
Two female employees of KBR who were raped while in Iraq have testified before Congress. On her fourth day in Iraq, July 28, 2005, Jamie Leigh Jones was gang-raped by seven fellow KBR employees at Camp Hope in Baghdad. Jones’ rape occurred nine days after Lavena Johnson was found dead in a KBR tent at Balad Air Base. Jones was drugged, raped and beaten, and the injuries she suffered were so severe that she had to have reconstructive surgery on her chest (“Democracy Now,” April 18, 2008, “Two Ex-KBR Employees Say They Were Raped by Co-Workers in Iraq,” www.democracynow.org/2008/4/8/exclusivein_their_first_joint_interview_two).
Jones reportedly was taken back to the KBR area, where she was placed into an empty shipping container under KBR armed guard for almost 24 hours without food or water or the ability to communicate with anyone. The military doctor who examined her turned over the “rape kit” photographs and statement to KBR. Jones persuaded a guard to allow her a phone call, which she made to her father. Her father promptly called their Texas congressional representative, Ted Poe, who then called the State Department in Iraq and demanded her immediate release. Jones was rescued shortly thereafter and quickly left Iraq. Congressman Poe again contacted the State Department and the Department of Justice in an effort to launch an investigation, but both departments ignored the requests and even refused to contact Poe for the next two years. The “rape kit” and the photographs of and statement from Jones taken by a military doctor disappeared (ABC News, “KBR Employees: Company Covered Up Sexual Assault and Harassment,” abcnews.go.com/Blotter/popup?id=3948132&contentIndex=1&start=false&page=1).
Jones testified Dec. 17, 2007, before the House Judiciary Committee on “Enforcement of Federal Criminal Law to Protect Americans Working for U.S. Contractors in Iraq” (judiciary.house.gov/hearings/hear_121907.html).
The nonprofit foundation Jones created after her ordeal, the Jamie Leigh Jones Foundation, has been contacted by 40 U.S. contractor employees alleging that they are the victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment on the job and that Halliburton, KBR and Service Employees International Inc. have not helped them or have obstructed their claims (Karen Houppert, “Another KBR Rape Case,” The Nation, April 3, 2008).
Dawn Leamon was another civilian contractor employed by KBR who was raped allegedly by KBR employees. She was the sole medical provider at Camp Harper, a base near Basra in southern Iraq. Leamon reported being raped anally by a U.S. soldier in January 2008 while a KBR employee forced his penis into her mouth. She says she was told to keep quiet by her KBR supervisor and by the military liaison officer. Her laptop computer was seized within hours after she e-mailed a civilian lawyer. She testified on April 9, 2008, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the hearing “Closing Legal Loopholes: Prosecuting Sexual Assaults and Other Violent Crimes Committed Overseas by American Civilians in a Combat Environment” (foreign.senate.gov/hearings/2008/hrg080409a.html).
Johnsons’ Quest Continues in Daughter’s Death
After two years of requesting documents, the family of Lavena Johnson received a set of papers from the Army that included a photocopy of a compact disk. Wondering why the copy was among the documents, Dr. Johnson requested the CD itself. The Army finally complied after a congressman intervened. When Dr. Johnson viewed the CD, he was shocked to see photographs taken by Army investigators of his daughter’s body as it lay where her body had been found, as well as other photographs of her disrobed body taken during the investigation.
The photographs revealed that Lavena, barely five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, had been struck in the face with a blunt instrument, perhaps a weapon stock. Her nose was broken and her teeth knocked backward. One elbow was distended. The back of her clothes contained debris, indicating she had been dragged. The photographs of her disrobed body showed bruises, scratch marks and teeth imprints on the upper part of her body. The right side of her back as well as her right hand had been burned, apparently from a flammable liquid poured on her and then lighted. Photographs of her genital area revealed massive bruising and lacerations. A corrosive liquid had been poured into her genital area, probably to destroy DNA evidence of sexual assault.
Despite the bruises, scratches, teeth imprints and burns on her body, Lavena was found completely dressed in the burning tent. There was a blood trail from outside the contractor’s tent to inside the tent. She apparently had been dressed after the attack and her attacker had placed her body in the tent before setting it on fire.
Investigator records reveal that members of her unit said Johnson had told them she was going jogging with friends on the other side of the base. One unit member walked with her to the post exchange, where she bought a soda, and then, in her Army workout clothes, Johnson went on by herself to meet friends and to exercise. The unit member said she was in good spirits, showing no indication of personal emotional problems.
The Army investigators initially concluded that Pvt. Johnson’s death was a homicide and indicated that on their paperwork. However, a decision apparently was made by higher officials that the investigators would stop the homicide inquiry and classify her death a suicide.
Three weeks later, a final autopsy report from the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, dated Aug. 13, 2005, said the cause of death was an intraoral gunshot wound to the head and the manner of death was a suicide. However, the autopsy report-written after the July 22, 2005, autopsy at Dover Air Force Base and signed on Aug. 9, 2005 by associate medical examiner Lt. Cmdr. Edward Reedy and by chief deputy medical examiner Cmdr. James Caruso-states much more in its opinion section:
“The 19 year old female, Lavena Johnson, died as a result of a gunshot wound of the head that caused injuries to the skull and brain. The entrance wound was inside the mouth and injuries to the lips and oral mucosa were a direct result of the discharge of the weapon. The exit wound was located on the left side of the head. No bullet or bullet fragments were recovered. Toxicology was negative for alcohol and other screened drugs. The investigative information made available indicates that this was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. With the information surrounding the circumstances of the death that is presently available the manner of death is determined to be suicide.”
The medical examiners revealed that they were basing their determination of suicide on “investigative information made available indicat[ing] that this was a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” not from medical evidence. They did not address what caliber of bullet entered her body-in fact, they stated that no bullet or bullet fragment was recovered, and they did not offer comments on what caliber of bullet would have made the entry and exit wounds.
The Aug. 25, 2005, report from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Forest Park, Ga., stated:
The characteristic gunshot residue particle indicated on Exhibit 5 (Gunshot residue kit (Item 9, Doc 775-05), the number is considered insignificant. Based on these results, the report concludes that the following possibilities exist, but the report makes no conclusion:
a. The subject did not handle/discharge a firearm.
b. The subject handled/discharged a firearm but an insignificant number of gunshot residue particles were deposited on the hands.
c. The subject handled/discharged a firearm that deposited a significant number of gunshot residue particles on the hand; however, due to washing, wiping, or other activity, the particles were reduced to insignificant numbers.
The medical examiners who did the autopsy on Johnson’s body did not mention any burns on her body, but when the family had gloves that had been glued onto her hands cut off by the funeral home employees in Missouri, they found her hands had been burned, and further examination showed her back was burned. A witness statement taken on July 19, 2005, states: “The witness [name redacted] … found the victim under the bench and verified there were no signs of life … related he saw the M16 lying across the victim’s body … he didn’t know what setting the weapon was on … he related everything was smoking, including parts of the body. He called for an ambulance and secured the scene.”
On April 9, 2008, Johnson’s parents flew from their home in St. Louis for meetings with members of Congress and their staff. They again went to Washington, D.C., in July 2008 and were briefed by Army investigators and the military medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Lavena. The Army briefers maintained that her death was a suicide and were unable to answer Dr. John and Linda Johnson’s long list of questions. The Johnsons are asking for a congressional hearing that would force the Army to further investigate their daughter’s death.
Murder of Three Women in North Carolina
Some of the circumstances surrounding Lavena Johnson’s death in Iraq three years ago are similar to those of other American servicewomen who died in recent months. In the six months from December 2007 to July 2008, three U.S. military women were killed by military males near the Army’s Fort Bragg and the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, two mega-bases in North Carolina.
Two of the women were in the Army. Spc. Megan Touma was seven months pregnant when her body was found inside a Fayetteville hotel room June 21, 2008. A married male soldier whom she knew in Germany has since been arrested. The estranged Marine husband of Army 2nd Lt. Holley Wimunc has been arrested in her death and the burning of her body.
Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach had been raped in May 2007 and protective orders had been issued against the alleged perpetrator, fellow Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean. The burned body of Lauterbach and her unborn baby were found in a shallow grave in the backyard of Laurean’s home in January 2008. Laurean fled to Mexico, where he was captured by Mexican authorities. He is currently awaiting extradition to the United States to stand trial. Lauterbach’s mother testified before Congress on July 31, 2008, that the Marine Corps ignored warning signs that Laurean was a danger to her daughter (testimony of Mary Lauterbach to the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, nationalsecurity.oversight.house.gov/documents/20080731134039.pdf).
Two Women Sexually Assaulted Before Their Deaths
Remarkably, a rape test was not performed on the body of Lavena Johnson although bruising and lacerations in her genital area indicated assault.
Another family that does not believe their daughter committed suicide in Iraq is the family of Pfc. Tina Priest, 20, of Smithville, Texas, who was reported raped by a fellow soldier in February of 2006 on a military base known as Camp Taji. Priest was a part of the 5th Support Battalion, lst Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. The Army said Priest was found dead in her room on March 1, 2006, of a self-inflicted M-16 shot, 11 days after the rape. Priest’s mother, Joy Priest, disputes the Army’s findings.
Mrs. Priest said she talked several times with her daughter after the rape and that Tina, while very upset about the rape, was not suicidal. Mrs. Priest continues to challenge the Army’s 800 pages of investigative documents with a simple question: How could her five-foot-tall daughter, with a correspondingly short arm length, have held the M-16 at the angle which would have resulted in the gunshot? The Army attempted several explanations, but each was debunked by Mrs. Priest and by the 800 pages of materials provided by the Army itself. The Army now says Tina used her toe to pull the trigger of the weapon that killed her. The Army reportedly never investigated Tina’s death as a homicide, only as a suicide.
According to Tina’s mother, rape charges against the soldier whose sperm was found on Tina’s sleeping bag were dropped a few weeks after her death. He was convicted of failure to obey an order and sentenced to forfeiture of $714 for two months, 30 days’ restriction to the base and 45 days of extra duty.
On May 11, 2006, 10 days after Tina Priest was found dead, 19-year-old Army Pfc. Amy Duerksen was found dead at the same Camp Taji. Duerksen died three days after she suffered what the Army called “a self-inflicted gunshot.” The Army claimed that she, too, had committed suicide. In the room where her body was found, investigators reportedly discovered her diary open to a page on which she had written about being raped during training after unknowingly ingesting a date-rape drug. The person Duerkson identified in her diary as the rapist was charged by the Army with rape after her death. Many who knew her did not believe she shot herself, but there is no evidence of a homicide investigation by the Army.
Women Had Concerns About Job Irregularities
Three women whose deaths have been classified as suicides had expressed concerns about improprieties or irregularities in their military commands.
Army Spc. Ciara Durkin, 30, a Massachusetts National Guard payroll clerk, was found dead on Sept. 28, 2007, from a gunshot wound to the head. She had gotten off work 90 minutes earlier and was found lying near a chapel on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Durkin had called her brother just hours before she died, leaving an upbeat happy birthday message on his telephone. In previous conversations, Durkin told her sister that she had discovered something in the finance unit that she did not agree with and that she had made some enemies over it. She told her sister to keep investigating her death if anything happened to her (“How did Specialist Ciara Durkin Die?” CBSNews, Oct. 4, 2007, cbsnews.com/stories/2007/10/04/world/main3328739.shtml). In June 2008, the Army declared her death a suicide.
Army interrogator Spc. Alyssa Renee Peterson, 27, assigned to C Company, 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky., was an Arabic linguist who reportedly was very concerned about the manner in which interrogations of detained Iraqis were being conducted. She died on Sept. 15, 2003, near Tal Afar, Iraq, in what the Army described as a gunshot wound to the head, a noncombat, self-inflicted weapons discharge, or suicide. Peterson had reportedly objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners in Iraq and refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as “the cage.” Members of her unit have refused to describe the specific interrogation techniques to which Peterson objected. The military says that all records of those techniques have now been destroyed. After refusing to conduct more interrogations, Peterson was assigned to guard the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards. She was also sent to suicide prevention training. Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle on the night of Sept. 15, 2003. Family members challenge the Army’s conclusion.
Maj. Gloria Davis, 47, an 18-year Army veteran, mother and grandmother, was found dead of a gunshot wound on Dec. 12, 2006, the day after she reportedly talked at length to an Army investigator about corruption in military contracting. She had been accused of accepting a $225,000 bribe from Lee Dynamics, a defense contractor that provided warehouse space for the storage of automatic weapons in Iraq (Eric Schmitt and James Glanz, “U.S. Says Company Bribes Officers for Work in Iraq,” New York Times, Aug. 31, 2007).
Davis’ mother, Annie Washington, told the author that military investigators have never located any of the $225,000 Davis is alleged to have taken. Washington said her daughter was right-handed and would have had a hard time holding the weapon in her left hand and shooting herself on the left side of her head (telephone conversation between Ann Wright and Annie Washington, July 2008).
Federal court documents show that the Army suspended Lee Dynamics from contracting on July 9, 2007, over allegations that the company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to numerous U.S. officers in Iraq and Kuwait in 2004 and 2005 to get contracts to build, operate and maintain warehouses in Iraq where weapons, uniforms and vehicles for the Iraqi military were stored.
Reportedly included in the documents was a seven-page statement by an Army investigator who questioned Maj. Davis the day before she was found dead in her quarters. The deposition has apparently been used in ongoing federal cases on corruption in military contracting (Ed Blanche, “Kickbacks, Weapons and Suicide: The US Army’s Battle With Corruption,” March 15, 2008, kippreport.com/article.php?articleid=1056&page=1). The author attempted to obtain a copy of Davis’ statement from the Department of Justice, but a DoJ public affairs officer said the statement is not yet in the public domain and intimated that it is being used in other ongoing DoJ investigations into contracting fraud (telephone conversation on July 28, 2008, with DoJ public affairs officer).
The Lee Dynamics warehouses were part of a circle of corruption involving military personnel and contractors throughout Iraq and the disappearance of 190,000 U.S.-supplied weapons- 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 80,000 pistols intended for Iraqi security forces for which the U.S. military cannot account. A July 2007 Government Accountability Office report said that until December 2005 the U.S.-Iraqi training command had no centralized records on weapons provided to Iraqi forces, and although 185,000 AK-47 rifles, 170,000 pistols, 215,000 sets of body armor and 140,000 steel helmets had been issued by September 2005, because of poor record keeping it was unclear what happened to 110,000 AK-47s and 80,000 pistols and more than half the armor and helmets (GAO Report 07-711, Stabilizing Iraq: DOD Cannot Ensure That U.S.-Funded Equipment Has Reached Iraqi Security Forces, July 2007, Pages 14 and 15, gao.gov/new.items/d07711.pdf).
In December 2007, the U.S. military acknowledged that it had lost track of an additional 12,000 weapons, including more than 800 machine guns (Ed Blanche, “Kickbacks, Weapons and Suicide: The US Army’s Battle With Corruption,” March 15, 2008, kippreport.com/article.php?articleid=1056&page=1).
In 2005, Col. Ted Westhusing, 44, at the time the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq, allegedly committed suicide after reportedly becoming despondent about the poor performance of private contractors who were training Iraqi police, for which he was responsible. After graduating third in his West Point class and serving as the honor captain for the entire academy his senior year, Westhusing became one of the Army’s leading scholars on military ethics and was a professor at West Point.
In January 2005 Westhusing began supervising the training of Iraqi forces to take over security duties from the U.S. military. He oversaw the Virginia-based USIS, a private security contractor, which had contracts worth $79 million to train a corps of Iraqi police to conduct special-operations missions. Westhusing was upset about allegations, in a four-page anonymous letter, that USIS deliberately shorted the Iraqi government on the number of trainers it provided in order to increase its profit margin. The letter also revealed two incidents in which USIS contractors allegedly had witnessed or participated in the killing of Iraqi civilians. After an angry counseling meeting with the contractor, Westhusing was found dead of a gunshot wound. Many of Westhusing’s professional colleagues question the Army’s ruling of suicide, despite the note found in his quarters. They point out that Westhusing did not have a bodyguard and was surrounded by the same contractors he suspected of wrongdoing. They also question why the USIS company manager who discovered Westhusing’s body was not tested for gunpowder residue.
In the space of three months in 2006, three members of the U.S. Army who had been part of a contracting and logistics group in Kuwait and Iraq were accused of taking bribes from contractors and allegedly committed suicide. Two of them were women, Maj. Gloria Davis and Sgt. Denise Lannaman, and the third was Lt. Col. Marshall Gutierrez. In August 2006 Gutierrez was arrested at a restaurant in Kuwait and was accused of shaking down a laundry contractor for a $3,400 bribe. He was allowed to return to his quarters and was found dead on Sept. 4, 2006, with an empty bottle of prescription sleeping pills and an open container of what appeared to be antifreeze.
The second woman soldier who was allegedly involved with bribes and allegedly committed suicide was New York Army National Guard Sgt. Denise A. Lannaman. Lannaman, 46, had completed one tour in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2005. In December 2005 she decided to volunteer to stay in Iraq longer and took an assignment at a desk job at a procurement office in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, that purchased millions of dollars in supplies. She received excellent performance ratings, and her supervisor said that her oversight eliminated misuse of funds by 36 percent. On Oct. 1, 2006, Lannaman was questioned by a senior officer about the death of Lt. Col. Gutierrez and was reportedly told by that officer that she was implicated in the contracting fraud and would be leaving the military in disgrace. She was found in a jeep dead of a gunshot later that day.
The Army has classified Lannaman’s death as a suicide. A member of her family said that Lannaman had a history of psychiatric problems but somehow been allowed to enlist in the military. She had attempted suicide four times in her life, according to the family member. In September 2007, Army spokesman Lt. Col. William Wiggins told the family that Lannaman had not been the subject of any contract investigations, but he said he could not say whether Lannaman had been threatened by a superior officer with dismissal from the service (Jim Dwyer, “Letter from America: Journey from New York to Kuwait, and Suicide,” New York Times, Sept. 19, 2007). Lannaman’s family said that because of her pre-existing mental state, the threat that the superior officer made to send her home in disgrace could have caused her to take her life.
Soldiers Convicted of Bribery
In June 2008 four persons plead guilty in bribery and kickback scandals concerning military contracts in Iraq. On June 11, 2008, recently retired Army National Guard Col. Levonda Joey Selph, a key person on Gen. David Petraeus’ team that was training and equipping Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005, pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy. She admitted disclosing to the owner of Lee Dynamics International confidential bidding information about a $12-million contract for building and operating U.S. military warehouses in Iraq that stored automatic weapons and other equipment. Lee Dynamics International is the same company that reportedly gave Maj. Davis a $225,000 bribe. Col. Selph helped the company owner, a former Army pay clerk, to submit “fake bid packages on behalf of six companies he controlled to create a false sense of competition,” for which she was given a trailer valued at $20,000; she eventually returned the trailer, and the contractor then gave her $4,000 in cash and paid for air fare and accommodations for a trip to Thailand in October 2005, valued at about $5,000. Selph has since agreed to pay the U.S. government $9,000 and could serve a prison sentence of up to two years (Eric Schmitt, “Guilty Plea Given in Iraq Contract Fraud,” New York Times, June 11, 2008).
After having been in military custody since July 2007, Army Maj. John Cockerham, 43, pleaded guilty last January to bribery, conspiracy and money laundering in awarding illegal contracts for supplies such as bottled water. He had received more than $9 million in bribes from at least eight defense contractor companies, and records found in his home indicated he expected to get $5.4 million more. Melissa Cockerham, Cockerham’s wife, also pleaded guilty to money laundering. Their plea bargains were kept under federal court seal until June 25, 2008, while they cooperated with investigators. Cockerham faces up to 40 years in prison, while his wife could face up to 20 years in prison (Dana Hedgpeth, “2 Plead Guilty to Army Bribery Scheme,” Washington Post, June 25, 2008).
The Death of Spc. Keisha Morgan
Army Spc. Keisha Morgan, 25, was on her second tour in Iraq. Just days before her February 22, 2008, death, she called her mother, Diana Morgan, and happily told her that she had reenlisted. Her mother said that Keisha wanted to be a nurse and planned to fulfill that ambition after she got out of the Army. Assigned to the Fourth Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, Keisha reportedly suffered two seizures in her barracks at Camp Taji and died in a military hospital in Bagdad. The Army reportedly told Keisha’s mother that Keisha was on antidepressants and may have overdosed. In a blog, Keisha’s mother said her daughter had never mentioned being on antidepressants.
However, the Army reportedly frequently prescribes antidepressants to soldiers with anxiety from effects of war, and one of the known side effects of some of the depressants is seizures. The Army’s fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report indicates that, according to an anonymous survey of U.S. troops taken in the fall of 2007, about 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq and 17 percent of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants (such as Prozac and Zoloft) or sleeping pills (such as Ambien) to help them cope, with about 50 percent taking antidepressants and 50 percent taking prescription sleeping pills. In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the warning on antidepressants that the drugs may increase the risk of suicide in children and young adults ages 18 to 24, the age group most taking prescribed drugs in the Army. The Army should question whether there is a link between the increased use of the drugs by military troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rising suicide rate, which is now double the Army’s suicide rate in 2001.
Deception or Just Incompetence?
It’s now well known that there was deception by the U.S. military in the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman and the decision to make a heroic character out of Pvt. Jessica Lynch (oversight.house.gov/documents/20080714111050.pdf). But there are many other cases of deception and of misinformation given to families.
After much pressure from the families for more information on the deaths of their sons in 2004, the parents of Army Spc. Patrick McCaffery and 1st Lt. Andre Tyson were finally told by the Army two years after the death of their sons that they were not killed by insurgents but by Iraqi army recruits with whom they were training and patrolling (democracynow.org/2006/6/23/army_lies_to_mother_of_slain).
The parents of Spc. Jesse Buryj were initially told their son died in an accident. After relentless pressure on the Army for a copy of the autopsy, his mother read that Buryj had died of a gunshot wound. She had to request through the Freedom of Information Act a copy of the incident report, which states he was killed by friendly fire from coalition Polish troops. And later a soldier from Buryj’s unit came to her home and told her he had been killed by “one of our own troops” (democracynow.org/2006/3/15/sunshine_week_newspapers_and_broadcasters_challenge).
Karen Meredith had to request the report on the May 30, 2004, death of her son, 1st Lt. Ken Ballard, through the Freedom of Information Act. Ballard did not die in a firefight with insurgents as she was originally told (arlingtoncemetery.net/kmballard.htm). He actually died in an accident when a branch fell on a tank in which he was riding and set off an unmanned gun (mydd.com/story/2005/9/12/14492/7912).
On Sept. 9, 2005, Meredith met with an Army colonel in the Pentagon and received a letter of apology from the Army for its misinformation on her son’s death. On Sept. 27, 2005, she met with Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey and asked him to promise that soldiers’ families would promptly be told the truth about casualties.
As the Beaumont, Texas, newspaper the Enterprise stated in its June 20, 2008, editorial, “There is no excuse for the U.S. Army’s shabby treatment of Kamisha Block’s parents and others who cared for her. Her commanders knew right away that she had been killed by a fellow soldier in Iraq, who had been harassing her. It was a standard murder-suicide. Incredibly, the Army first told her parents that it was an accidental death due to friendly fire.”
A few days later, the Army changed its story and told the parents of Spc. Block that their daughter had been murdered by a shot to the chest. At the funeral home in Vidor, Texas, Block’s mother noticed her daughter had a wound to her head, not mentioned by the Army.
Six months later, after numerous phone calls to the Army and enlisting help from Congressman Kevin Brady, Block’s family was told by the Army that she had been murdered by a fellow soldier in her unit, a man who had physically assaulted her three times. His unit had disciplined him once but kept him in the same unit where he assaulted Block two other times before he murdered her by firing five shots into her and then killing himself in the same barracks room. After many attempts, the parents finally received a 1,200-page investigation that gave the name of the murderer.
Our Soldiers’ Families Deserve Better
The families of slain soldiers deserve the truth about how they served and how they died. A professional military should handle each case with utmost care and concern. Tragically, in the past seven years, too many families have been faced with unanswered questions and a military bureaucracy that closes ranks against those who are trying to find answers.
I appeal to those in our military who know how these women died to come forward. Hopefully, the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Susan Davis, (202) 225-2040, will hold hearings on military suicides in the next two months and provide protection from retaliation for those willing to testify.
While nuclear industry lobbyists and their political backers are pushing for new nuclear power plants, is a nuclear resurgence really upon us? Wall Street and the public remain skeptical due to spiraling costs, the continued lack of a solution to the nuclear waste problem and a spectacular boom in the solar and wind industries.
After more than 30 years, nuclear power still can’t stand on its own feet. According to a report released by the Nuclear Energy Institute on Aug. 6, without “federal and state government support, it is difficult to see how new nuclear plants can be financed and constructed competitively.” In other words, if more reactors will be built, we, the taxpayers and ratepayers, will be stuck with the bill.
Although good estimates are elusive, new reactors could cost from $5 billion to $12 billion each, a staggering sum that will whack consumers with “rate shock.” Ratepayers, who will be forced by unjust state laws to bear most of the risk, will still have to pay if projects are halted in midstream, which has happened in the past.
South Carolina Electric & Gas has presented a figure of $9.8 billion for two new units it plans to build with Santee Cooper in Fairfield County, but that figure appears not to include transmission costs, right of way purchase and other costs. Duke Energy has refused to publicly reveal a price tag for two new reactors planned for Cherokee County but has not denied that $12 billion to $18 billion, a figure from a case in Florida, is in the ballpark. The reactor planned by Duke and South Carolina Electric & Gas, Westinghouse’s AP1000, is years away from final design and has never been built before. Problems and more design changes during construction will thus make guinea pigs out of customers.
In October 2007, Moody’s Investor Service issued a report on nuclear power and said companies building new reactors will face increased risks due to the size and complexity of reactor projects, length of construction time and uncertainty about final costs.
On Aug. 4, 2008, Fitch Ratings dropped the rating of South Carolina Electric & Gas from “stable” to “negative” due to its pursuit of new nuclear plants. A Business Wire report stated, “The Negative Rating Outlook also recognizes the construction risk and uncertainties associated with projects of this size and complexity.”
South Carolina Electric & Gas filed in May for a rate increase with the S.C. Public Service Commission to build the reactors, clearly stating that risks exist and that big electricity bill increases are coming, undercutting the argument that nuclear power is reliable and inexpensive.
Utilities are in the business to produce power and have been very slow to consider least-cost energy efficiency and conservation programs, which cost up to 10 times less than building new generating stations while more efficiently confronting climate change. South Carolina Electric & Gas’ reluctance to develop a new approach is demonstrated by its application asking for a rate increase to pay for some costs of the new reactors — only about three pages out of more than 200 discussed conservation, efficiency and alternative energy. South Carolina Electric & Gas has thus starkly drawn the line with its backward thinking — if you are in favor of new reactors you are against significant programs for conservation, efficiency and alternatives.
Such lack of planning for cheaper and cleaner options is reflective of the thinking of many utilities and shows that regulated monopolies and centralized power stations, both coal and nuclear, aren’t the answer. Until attitudes change, they won’t provide the cleaner power people increasingly demand.
According to a July USA Today/Gallup poll on energy, the public prefers cleaner options, such as encouraging energy conservation, raising fuel efficiency standards and increasing government spending on alternative fuels. Energy conservation and alternatives are winning out as voter consciousness shifts.
In addition to increasing costs, the spent nuclear fuel from reactors still has no place to go. This has prompted many of the same voices that call for subsided nuclear power to push for the reprocessing of spent fuel, which could end up turning South Carolina into a nuclear waste dump for the entire country while yielding a net energy drain, once again at public expense.
As each nuclear reactor uses about 20 million gallons of water per day, the impact to lakes and rivers could be severe. The Broad River is now facing both the Duke and South Carolina Electric & Gas reactor proposals, an unprecedented threat to any river in the United States. Given that all counties in the Upstate have been upgraded from “severe” drought to “extreme” drought by the S.C. Drought Response Committee, the river’s ecosystem and use of water for other purposes is under attack.
As the discussion about our energy future continues, the environmental and economic arguments against pursuing a new generation of subsidized nuclear reactors continue to mount. Cheaper and cleaner alternatives are at our doorstep, and we should pursue those before jumping off into a risky, dangerous pursuit of costly new generating plants.
If nuclear backers want to forge ahead, they should reject subsidies and loan guarantees, though it is doubtful whether their industry can survive without the usual serving of government pork.
Sun, Aug 31, 2008 (2 a.m.)
The Clark County Commission occasionally approves contracts for tens of thousands of dollars to do work relating to Yucca Mountain.
These contracts are for environmental analysts, scientists and lawyers hired to look over the shoulder of the federal government as it plods forward with its plan to turn the mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas into the nation’s nuclear waste dump.
The federal government’s goal is to move about 154 million pounds of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods from 126 sites across the country to Yucca, an effort that has been stalled by lawsuits and Congressional action.
Meanwhile, local governments surrounding Yucca Mountain spend millions of dollars every year to monitor what the feds are doing.
Here’s the kicker: Those local governments don’t foot the bill.
The beneficiaries of nuclear power do.
How does that work?
Harry Kelman, senior management analyst with the Clark County Nuclear Waste Program, said a decades-old provision in the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act forces the federal government to allow, and pay for, monitoring of Yucca Mountain plans by all “affected” units of government, including Nye County, where the repository resides, and the counties surrounding it.
Clark County’s portion this fiscal year is $1.7 million, Kelman said. That money comes from a portion of the utility fees paid by customers across the United States whose electricity comes from nuclear plants.
The contractors will do environmental impact assessments, review transportation reports, complete case studies, and monitor and collect a variety of data.
“No taxpayer is paying for Yucca Mountain,” Kelman said. “It’s a ratepayer that agreed to pay that rate.”
Is the hiring of consultants necessary?
“One of the things we try to do is protect the residents within our county and part of that is with the various studies that we do,” Kelman said. “We’re about a six-person team here and there’s no way we could do the work we do with six people.”
He also noted that the county determined it was cheaper to hire consultants than to add staff. And private sector consultants are able to change directions more quickly.
“One of the biggest parts of the program is the DOE (Energy Department) from year to year shifts their program around,” Kelman said. “We as a government can’t shift that fast. But a private consultant can.”