Saturday, October 20, 2007

Explosions fuel gas pipeline fittings debate

By BRETT SHIPP - WFAA-TV News 8 Investigation - Oct. 18, 2007

A deadly natural gas explosion in Wylie last year is fueling a new debate about the safety of many North Texans.

At least 100,000 of the questionable couplings that failed in the Wylie case are still in the ground in North Texas.

News 8 discovered these are the same fittings that have been popping loose under the elastic North Texas soil, leaking natural gas into houses and causing deadly explosions for decades.

When leaking gas was blamed for the October 2006 explosion that killed Benny and Martha Cryer, neighbors like Coral Watkins said they were not surprised. Watkins said many of her neighbors had complained to the gas company for years.
"You used to could just walk out and it would hit you in the face," she said. "[I] complained to Atmos, and they would come out and say they couldn't smell anything."

As it turns out, Watkins and her neighbors were right. Days after the gas leak and explosion that killed the Cryers, Atmos crews made a shocking discovery. Gas lines were leaking all over the neighborhood.

Twenty-four were discovered, even though Atmos officials said they could find no leaks during tests run in the neighborhood one year before.

Atmos officials have declined to discuss on camera with News 8 the nature of the leaks citing ongoing litigation, but insist that the original pipeline equipment was installed properly.

The leak that killed Benny and Martha Cryer was traced to a gas line that had separated from its fitting. Installed in the '70s, what's known as a non-restraint, compression coupling had pulled loose of the pipe. Unlike most fittings that lock tight, the non-restraint, compression coupling's only mechanism to grip the pipe is a rubber seal.

According to Atmos construction worker Allan Burrow, who was recently deposed in a lawsuit against Atmos, the coupling has a history of slipping out.

"The washer on the inside had a tendency to dry up over a period of years and just start, just causing a leak," he said.

Atmos officials said they replace the couplings after they leak and will replace them when they discover one still in the ground.

But federal pipeline safety regulations already require action and states, "each segment of pipeline that becomes unsafe must be replaced or removed from service."

By not removing all of the old couplings out of the ground, Atmos is leaving tens of thousands of potentially deadly couplings still in the very elastic North Texas soil.

In 1980, the National Transportation Safety Board investigating a fatal house explosion in Keller determined, "soil stress loosened one end of the compression coupling."
In that same report the NTSB declared, "compression couplings were not designed to prevent pullout."

Pipeline engineer Don Deaver of Houston said compression couplings are known throughout the industry as dangerous and the manufacturers even warn of a potential pullout. "And this has been known for a long time," he said. "These warnings have been here for many, many years."

On December 8, 2006, Texas Railroad Commission investigators released their preliminary findings on the Cryers' house explosion. Among their findings was a "line that separated from a compression coupling... possibly due to shifting of soil" and "natural ground movement".

According to an inter-office email just days before the final report was released, Railroad Commission Safety Director Mary McDaniel and her investigator discussed the couplings' "susceptibility to pull out with stress."

But five days later, when the Wylie explosion final report became public, News 8 noticed a glaring omission. There was no mention of the flawed couplings and no criticism of Atmos and the 24 leaks in one neighborhood.

Instead, the report alluded to "possible damage" to the gas line during "third party" activity. In other words, another utility, not Atmos, might be to blame for the pullout.

In a notification letter to Atmos, the safety director "thanked Atmos for their assistance" with what she termed "a favorable report" and praised Atmos' "efforts to maintain their pipeline".

Deaver said he's shocked by the language in the final report.

"I don't understand the reason for even making that statement," he said. "It's almost suggesting that there's a lack of independence between the Texas Railroad Commission and the industry its regulating when it gets to be so chummy and makes those statements considering two people were dead."
News 8 also obtained an internal memo dated December 8, 2006 from Regional Safety Director Jody Kerl to her boss Mary McDaniel regarding the Wylie explosion.

Based on her concerns, Kerl recommends "an expedited program to phase out" the compression couplings attached to the gas meters. But just weeks ago, McDaniel told News 8 she rejected Kerl's recommendation.

Her reasoning was that McDaniel said there is nothing to back it up.

"There was one incident in Wylie that happened at that time," said McDaniel. "We didn't have any information that would suggest we had a problem with compression type couplings."

Meanwhile, on January 25t, 2007, one month after Kerl's recommendation to remove the couplings, a homeowner was injured when natural gas leaked into her house near Houston and exploded.

The preliminary cause according to state investigators was that settling soil had caused a compression coupling to fail.

Five months later, on May 29, two people were killed and three injured when natural gas leaked into a home in Cleburne. The preliminary cause, a compression coupling that failed.
Read entire article

Friday, October 19, 2007

Senate panel OKs wiretap bill, telecom immunity

By Randall Mikkelsen - Reuthers - Thu., Oct. 18, 2007
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill to tighten rules on government eavesdropping on terrorism suspects, but a Democratic presidential candidate said on Thursday he would try to block it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 13-2 for the measure, which Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said strengthened national security and protected civil liberties.

"It ensures that the unchecked wiretapping policies of the administration are a thing of the past," Rockefeller told reporters.

The Senate committee's action came a day after a Democratic effort collapsed in the House of Representatives to pass an eavesdropping bill opposed by the White House.

Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, called the Senate bill "a delicate arrangement of compromises."

The bill would allow wiretapping without a court order of suspected foreign terrorists, including when they call Americans, committee leaders said.

It would grant lawsuit immunity, demanded by the White House, for telephone companies that participated in a secret warrantless eavesdropping program launched by U.S. President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.

The House bill would have required court approval when eavesdropping on terrorism suspects who might call Americans, and omitted the phone company immunity.

To safeguard civil liberties, the Senate bill would require a secret court to approve methods for targeting suspects and eavesdropping, more congressional oversight, and the removal of identifying information from intercepted calls involving innocent Americans.

An amendment added during committee debate would require court approval to eavesdrop on the communications of an American overseas. The bill would expire after six years.

Rockefeller said he was optimistic the White House would support the bill, but Bond indicated an amendment -- evidently the one on overseas Americans -- may need more work.


Sen. Chris Dodd said he intended to put a procedural "hold" on the bill, which could effectively block it from a Senate vote. The Connecticut Democrat, who does not serve on the Intelligence Committee, said on his presidential campaign Web site he opposed the telecom immunity provision.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said he voted against the committee's bill because of the immunity provision, despite winning passage of the amendment on Americans overseas.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, also voted against the bill, citing the immunity provision and the lack of a warrant requirement when a suspect's call involves Americans.

The immunity would not apply to any eavesdropping before September 11, 2001. Bond said that before then, "there was interception of radio communications on a broad basis," but later described that as an allegation.

An administration official said earlier that aides were still reviewing provisions of the deal reached before the Senate committee met and had some concerns, but called it "much better" than the House bill.

Read more

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

BREAKING: Breasts Found More Dangerous Than Gas Wells

By TxSHARON - BLUEDAZE - Oct. 16,2007
Despite all today's news about the dangers of gas wells, pipelines and injections wells, Fort Worth residents found breasts more dangerous than any of the above.
Read entire article on BLUEDAZE.

Goode: Bush wants North American Union to increase profits for corporations

By Terri Hall - T.U.R.F. - Wednesday, 26 September 2007
Link to article here.

Rep. Virgil Goode says below: "We are giving away the country so a few very rich people can get richer." Goode stressed that the Bush administration supports both a NAU regional government and a NAFTA Superhighway system.

Congress debate begins on North America Union
Resolution calls for end of NAFTA superhighway, abandonment of integration with Canada, Mexico

By Jerome R. Corsi - - September 25, 2007

House resolution urging President Bush "not to go forward with the North American Union or the NAFTA Superhighway system" is – according to its sponsor Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., in an exclusive WND interview – "also a message to both the executive branch and the legislative branch."
As WND previously reported, on Jan. 22 Goode introduced H.C.R. 40, titled "Expressing the sense of Congress that the United States should not engage in the construction of a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Superhighway System or enter into a North American Union with Mexico and Canada."

The bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

WND asked Goode if the president was risking electoral success for the Republican Party in 2008 with his insistence on pushing for North American integration via the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, or SPP.

"Yes," Goode answered. "You won't hear the leadership in the Republic Party admit it, but there are many in the House and Senate who know that illegal immigration has to be stopped and legal immigration has to be reduced. We are giving away the country so a few very rich people can get richer."

How did he react when President Bush referred to those who suggest the SPP could turn into the North American Union as "conspiracy theorists"?

"The president is really engaging in a play on words," Goode responded. "The secretary of transportation came before our subcommittee," he explained, "and I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about the NAFTA Superhighway. Of course, she answered, 'There's no NAFTA Superhighway.' But then Mary Peters proceeded to discuss the road system that would come up from Mexico and go through the United States up into Canada."

Goode is a member of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development of the House Committee on Appropriations.

"So, I think that saying we're 'conspiracy theorists' or something like that is really just a play on words with the intent to demonize the opposition," Goode concluded.

Goode stressed that the Bush administration supports both a NAU regional government and a NAFTA Superhighway system: "The Bush administration as well as Mexico and Canada have persons in the government in all three countries who want to a see a North American Union as well as a highway system that would bring goods into the west coast of Mexico and transport them up through Mexico into the United States and then in onto Canada," Goode confirmed.

The Virginia congressman said he believes the motivation behind the movement toward North American integration is the anticipated profits the large multinational corporations in each of the three countries expect to make from global trade, especially moving production to China.

"Some really large businesses that get a lot from China would like a NAFTA Superhighway system because it would reduce costs for them to transport containers from China and, as a result, increase their margins," he argued.

"I am vigorously opposed to the Mexican trucks coming into the country," Goode continued. "The way we have done it and, I think, the way we should do it in the future, is to have the goods come into the United States from Mexico within a 20-mile commercial space and unloaded from Mexican trucks into U.S. trucks. This procedure enhances the safety of the country, the security of the country, and provides much less chance for illegal immigration."

As WND reported, the Department of Transportation has begun a Mexican truck "demonstration project" under which 100 Mexican trucking companies are being allowed to run their long-haul rigs throughout the U.S.

Previously, Mexican trucks have been limited to a 20-mile commercial zone in the United States, with the requirement that goods bound for locations in the U.S. beyond the 20-mile commercial zone be off-loaded to U.S. trucks.

WND reported last month that Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., successfully offered an amendment to the Department of Transportation Fiscal Year 2008 appropriations bill to block DOT from spending any federal funds to implement the truck project.

Dorgan’s amendment passed 75-23, after Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., changed her vote to support Dorgan.

By a voice vote, the House passed an amendment offered by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., to the DOT appropriations bill comparable to Dorgan's, designed to block the agency from using federal funds to implement the truck project.

DeFazio chairs the House transportation subcommittee that oversees motor carriers.

"With the Trans-Texas Corridor, which I would say is part of the NAFTA Superhighway system, and with this NAFTA plot with the Mexican trucks just coming in and not loading off to U.S. trucks, they will just drive right over the Rio Grande and come on over into Texas," Goode argued. "A lot of these Mexican trucks will be bring containerized cargo from the west coast of Mexico where they will be unloaded in Mexican ports to avoid the fees and costs of unloading at U.S. ports."

"So, when you look at the total package," he continued, "we do have a NAFTA Superhighway system already in place. There are those in all three countries that believe we should have a North American Union and the Security and Prosperity Partnership, in my opinion takes us down that road. And I am vigorously opposed to the loss of our sovereignty."

Why, WND asked, do so many congressmen and senators insist on writing and telling their constituents that they don't know anything about the Security and Prosperity Partnership, or that SPP working groups are really just to increase our competitiveness?

"In the House, a strong majority voted to provide no money in the transportation funding bill," Goode responded. "I commend Congressman Duncan Hunter for submitting an amendment to the Department of Transportation funding bill [which] got over 360 votes that said no funds in the transportation appropriation measure, prohibiting Department of Transportation funds from being used to participate on working groups that promote the Security and Prosperity Partnership."

As WND reported, Hunter's amendment to the FY 2008 Department of Transportation funding bill prohibiting DOT from using federal funds to participate in SPP working groups creating NAFTA Superhighways passed 362 to 63, with strong bipartisan support. The House approved H.R. 3074 by 268-153, with the Hunter amendment included.

"So, I think a majority the House, if you had an up or down vote on the SPP, would vote down on the SPP," Goode concluded. "But some still say, and it's a play on words, that we don't have a Security and Prosperity Partnership that will lead to a North American Union. I don't think they can say anymore that we don't have a Security and Prosperity Partnership arrangement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, because that was done in Waco, Texas, on March 23, 2005, and the recent meeting at Montebello was to talk about it further."

WND asked Goode to comment on the North American Competitiveness Council, or NACC, a group of multinational corporations selected by the Chambers of Commerce in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. as the central adviser of SPP working groups.

At the SPP summit in Montebello, Quebec, the NACC met behind closed doors with the three leaders, cabinet secretaries who were present, and top SPP working group bureaucrats, while various public advocacy groups, environmental groups, labor unions – and the press – were excluded.

Should SPP working group meetings be open to the public?

"I wish they were," Goode responded. "If it is as the Bush administration says, 'We're not planning any North American Union,' then why wouldn’t those meetings be open, why wouldn’t you let the media in?" Goode asked.

"But some of the very big corporations want the goods from China to come in here unchecked," he continued. "It costs money for U.S. trucks to transport Chinese goods from West Coast ports like Los Angeles or Long Beach. But if you can have a Mexican truck and Mexican truck driver, that's going to be cheaper. And it's all about the margins. The margins relate directly to how much money the multi-national corporations are going to make."

Has the Senate debate on the Dorgan amendment brought the issues of the NAU and NAFTA Superhighways more to the attention of the Senate?

"I think so," Goode said. "That debate had a very positive effect. You had grassroots support calling the Senate on the Dorgan amendment.

"The Bush administration engages in the same play of words with all these issues," Goode added. "Take a look at the Kennedy-McCain comprehensive immigration reform, which the Bush administration has now tried to jam through the Senate not once, but twice.

"The Bush administration claims it's not [amnesty] when you let someone stay in the country and give them a path to citizenship," Goode pointed out. "Well, that's their definition, not my definition, and not the definition of the majority of the public. The majority of the public called in and buried the amnesty bill because of public pressure. Public pressure also got de-funded the pilot program on Mexican trucks in this country."

So should the U.S. pull out of the SPP?

"Yes," Goode answered, "but the best way to end SPP would be to have a chief executive that wouldn't do anything with it."

What does Goode think of the state legislatures that are passing anti-NAU, anti-NAFTA Superhighway and anti-SPP resolutions?

"If enough state legislatures pass resolutions like that, it surely should have an impact on the House and the Senate," Goode said.

"President Bush's position is that we need to carry out NAFTA and we need to have this free flow of goods with Mexico and Canada," Goode explained. "Well, Bush's approach involves a derogation of our sovereignty and it also undermines the security and the safety of the country.

"It will be much easier for a truck to get a container on the west coast of Mexico and haul in a biological or radiological or nuclear weapon than it would be if you are going to have to unload the trucks on the Texas-Mexico border and put the goods and material in a U.S. truck," he continued.

"The problem is that the NAU, NAFTA Superhighways and SPP all go back to money," Goode stressed. "The multinational companies want their goods from Mexico and China because they want the cheap labor."

What about the U.S.'s large and growing trade imbalance with China?

"I don't want to have to be an 'I told you so' person," Goode answered, "but I was a vigorous opponent of PNTR ("permanent normal trade relations") and before that of 'most favored nation' trade status with China. We need tariffs and quotas with China. Personally, if I know food is coming in from China, I won't buy it. The American people with the adoption of COOL, country of origin labeling, with the food clearly labeled, I think you will see the American public will shy away from Chinese products."

In 2000, Congress voted to extend to China PNTR. "Most favored nation" or MFN trade status, was given to China first in 1980 by the Carter administration. COOL rules are administered by the Department of Agriculture.

Goode concluded the interview by thanking WND for covering the SPP, NAU and NAFTA Superhighway issues: "I want to thank you for putting these issues out where people can read it," Goode said. "You have enlightened hundreds of thousands if not millions of American citizens who otherwise would have been greatly in the dark on the SPP."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Interim Heads Increasingly Run Federal Agencies

By PHILIP SHENON - The New York Times - October 15, 2007
WASHINGTON, Oct. 14 — For now, the most powerful law enforcement official in the federal government is a 47-year-old lawyer little known outside Washington.

Henrietta H. Fore, a State Department under secretary who also leads an aid agency.
Or inside Washington, for that matter.

He is acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler, who is running the Justice Department until a new attorney general is confirmed by the Senate to replace Alberto R. Gonzales. Mr. Keisler had been in charge of the department’s civil division.

The No. 2 and No. 3 officials are also acting — Deputy Attorney General Craig S. Morford and Associate Attorney General Gregory G. Katsas. More than a quarter of the department’s 93 United States attorneys around the country are “acting.”

At the top of the Department of Homeland Security, there is an acting general counsel, acting under secretary for national protection and acting assistant secretary for strategic plans. At the Department of Health and Human Services, the $600 billion-a-year Medicare and Medicaid programs have had an acting administrator since last fall.

Scholars and other researchers who study the federal bureaucracy say the situation in those agencies is becoming increasingly common elsewhere in the Bush administration.

With only 15 months left in office, President Bush has left whole agencies of the executive branch to be run largely by acting or interim appointees — jobs that would normally be filled by people whose nominations would have been reviewed and confirmed by the Senate. In many cases, there is no obvious sign of movement at the White House to find permanent nominees, suggesting that many important jobs will not be filled by Senate-confirmed officials for the remainder of the Bush administration. That would effectively circumvent the Senate’s right to review and approve the appointments. It also means that the jobs are filled by people who do not have the clout to make decisions that comes with a permanent appointment endorsed by the Senate, scholars say.

While exact comparisons are difficult to come by, researchers say the vacancy rate for senior jobs in the executive branch is far higher at the end of the Bush administration than it was at the same point in the terms of Mr. Bush’s recent predecessors in the White House.

The White House insists that when vacancies have occurred in executive branch agencies, it has filled them with talented acting replacements, often with the same officials who have been nominated — but not yet confirmed — for those jobs by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“We have capable people in place to provide leadership,” said Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman. “We encourage members of the Senate to confirm the nominees we’ve already sent to the Hill as soon as possible.”

Under a 1998 law known as the Vacancies Reform Act, acting government officials can remain in their posts for 210 days with the full legal authority they would otherwise have with Senate confirmation, with the calendar reset to 210 days once a nominee’s name has been forwarded to the Senate. As of Monday, there are 462 days left in Mr. Bush’s term.

The president also has authority under the Constitution to make so-called recess appointments to senior jobs when the Senate is out of session — authority that Mr. Bush has invoked far more often than his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton.

But recess appointments often subject the White House to criticism that it is trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. And since there is relatively little time left in the Bush administration, there may be less pressure, or need, to consider them.

“You’ve got more vacancies now than a hotel in hurricane season,” said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University and one of the nation’s best-known specialists on the federal bureaucracy. “In my 25 years of studying these issues, I’ve never seen a vacancy rate like this.”

Michael J. Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the federal appointment process, said that he believed the large number of vacancies reflected a widespread fear by Republicans that the next president, whoever it is, will be a Democrat, and that there is no job security at the top ranks of the executive branch.

“Republicans don’t have as much incentive to give up lucrative jobs in the private sector right now,” Professor Gerhardt said.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said, “In the long history of the country, I don’t think the Justice Department has been in such disarray.” He said the many vacancies at the department helped explain why there was turmoil. “You have top spots unconfirmed: unconfirmed attorney general, unconfirmed deputy, unconfirmed associate,” he said. “You took a look at the organizational chart, there are many others who are unconfirmed among the assistant attorneys general ranks.”

The vacancies include three members of the cabinet. There are currently three acting cabinet members, including Mr. Keisler. The Senate Judiciary Committee is weighing Mr. Bush’s nomination of Michael B. Mukasey, a retired federal judge, to replace Mr. Gonzales as attorney general, and has scheduled a confirmation hearing for Wednesday.

But the White House has so far failed to provide the Senate with the names of nominees for the other two cabinet jobs, and veterans affairs secretary, which are now being filled by officials placed there temporarily by Mr. Bush.

In the case of the Veterans Affairs Department, the White House has had months to find a nominee. The department’s last secretary, Jim Nicholson, announced in July that he would be stepping down.

The Office of Personnel Management, the government agency that oversees hiring and firing of federal employees, says it does not maintain records that would allow comparisons between the vacancy rates for senior government jobs under Mr. Bush and under his predecessors at this late point in their terms.

Steven G. Bradbury, acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Dept.
Under federal disclosure laws, executive branch agencies are supposed to report vacancies among top jobs to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative agency that is part of Congress. But a spokesman there said its database was not necessarily up to date and also did not offer comparisons from one administration to the next.

Professor Light said it was not surprising for the number of vacancies in senior government posts to grow near the end of a president’s term, when political appointees seek work outside government and it becomes more difficult to recruit candidates for what may be short-term jobs.

But he said the situation in the final months of the Bush administration was dire. Since Mr. Bush may well be replaced by a Democrat who would almost certainly want a wholesale turnover of political appointments, the vacancies could continue well into 2009 at many cabinet departments and other agencies, Professor Light said.

He said the problems of having so many acting senior government officials were obvious: “One of the things we know is that they just aren’t as effective as Senate-confirmed appointees. They just don’t have the standing in their agencies. Acting people are very shy about making decisions.”The situation is more serious at some federal agencies than others. At some cabinet departments, including the Defense Department, virtually all senior officials have Senate confirmation.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said the department had already identified nominees for all of its senior vacancies and was hopeful that they would be filled soon by Senate-confirmed officials.

Elsewhere in the government, the vacancies are numerous, with little expectation that they will be filled soon by candidates who have been approved in the Senate.

At the State Department, the job of under secretary for arms control and international security has been vacant for most of the past year. Mr. Bush announced the appointment of an acting under secretary late last month.

Henrietta H. Fore, the under secretary of state for management, has been doing double duty since spring, also serving as acting director of the United States Agency for International Development, the government’s foreign aid agency; the last occupant of the Usaid job resigned after he was identified as a customer of a Washington prostitution ring.

No cabinet agency has been hit harder by vacancies in senior posts than the Justice Department.

Its ranks have been depleted in recent months, which may be a reflection in part of the controversies that engulfed the department under Mr. Gonzales, especially the furor over the firing last year of several United States attorneys for what appear to have been political reasons.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for the department, said, “We are confident in the individuals who are leading their respective offices in an acting capacity; these are veteran department lawyers with significant experience.”

The heads of the department’s civil rights, natural resources and tax divisions are all acting, as are the directors of the elite Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of Legal Policy.

The acting head of the counsel’s office, Steven G. Bradbury, who functions as the department’s lawyer, has found himself under scrutiny with the disclosure last week that he was the author of a pair of secret legal opinions that endorsed severe interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects in the custody of the C.I.A.

The acting attorney general, Mr. Keisler, has relatively little experience in criminal prosecutions.

He has worked in the department’s civil division since 2002 and, before that, had spent most of his career in private practice in Washington or as a law clerk. He may be best known in Washington legal circles as a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society.

Read more in the New York Times

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