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The cell phone threat to flying PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 04 December 2013 16:05

Hint: It’s not that mobile phone use interferes with airplane navigation—it’s that cell phone talking in flight may soon be allowed

Rep. Tom Petri, Ozaukee County’s man in the House of Representatives, is on a noble quest and he needs the support of his constituents.

    No, this is not about the campaign to get the federal government to meet its responsibility to repair the Port Washington breakwater. Petri has signed on to that good cause, but the quest to which we’re referring is even more critical in terms of the breadth of its impact on the public.

    For the past five years, Petri has been on a lonely mission to shield the American people from the miseries that would be inflicted by cell phone use on airplanes during flights. In 2008, he sponsored the Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace Act. Having seen that legislation fail to come to a vote, Petri has now joined other enlightened members of Congress in a new crusade to protect airline passengers from an imminent threat.

    The threat is not to the physical safety of fliers, though it could come to that. The threat is to the emotional, psychological and mental safety of people crammed together in airplanes if cell phone calling is allowed.

    The notion that cell phones could interfere with planes’ navigation systems, the basis for the now 22-year-old ban on mobile phone use, has finally been exposed as an urban myth. The Federal Communications Commission has determined that mobile phone use won’t cause planes to crash. It is poised to end the ban as early as Dec. 11.

    The Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines would have to approve before cell phone calling during flights would be allowed, but the prospect of that happening has resulted in a letter authored by Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Steve Cohen and signed by Petri and other members of Congress exhorting the FAA to stand firm.

     The consequences of the agency’s failure to do that would be dreadful. As it is, flying is not a pleasant experience. Imagine it with cell phone talking as an added annoyance.

    With its hours of dead time, flying would be an irresistible invitation to non-stop yakking by those who use cell phones more as an electronic toy to pass the time than a communication tool.

    Something about the magic of having a telephone at one’s service during every second of one’s existence impels some people to use the devices whether or not they have something worthwhile to say. One them could be your seatmate on an airplane.

    On the cell phone aggravation scale, nothing rises higher than talkers who treat their phones as microphones. Their “conversations” are monologues, performances meant not just for the unfortunate person (if there actually is one) on the other end of the signal, but for an audience consisting of everyone within earshot. They speak loudly, of course, declaiming banalities as though they were on stage.    

    The cell phone menace to airplane passengers is not based on idle conjecture. Plenty of data support it, documented in the history of commuter trains. Earlier in the cell phone era, cell phone rudeness became so rife that fights broke out between yakkers and unwilling listeners who couldn’t take it any more. On numerous trains, including Amtrak’s Hiawatha between Milwaukee and Chicago, this lead to the designation of “quiet cars,” meaning all train cars except one or two noisy cars where cell phone use is permitted.    

    It is a measure of the seriousness of this threat that the congressional move to head it off may be the only bipartisan effort to come from this polarized-to-the-point-of-dysfunction Congress. Petri is a Republican, as is Alexander. Cohen is a Democrat. Colleagues from both parties have joined in the petition to the FAA.

    When Republicans and Democrats can agree that it must be prevented, you know that cell phone calling during flights is a bad thing.

    Send Tom Petri some encouragement. It’s OK to use your cell phone to do it (provided you’re not aloft in an airliner).

Oil and water PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Tuesday, 26 November 2013 15:17

The tar sands oil boom is posing a new environmental threat to the Great Lakes with tankers poised to transport one of the dirtiest forms of crude oil on their waters

The tar sands oil boom is reducing America’s dependence on Middle East petroleum, providing high paying jobs around the oil fields of Canada and North Dakota, revving up the economies of those places and giving handsome returns to oil company stockholders.

    That’s the bright side. The dark side is that tar sands oil is the nastiest oil there is. Extracting it consumes copious amounts of energy, severely damages the landscape from which it is taken and causes water pollution. Burning it releases high levels of carbon. Consisting of bitumen mixed with sand, clay and water, it is corrosive enough to eat through pipes and is extremely resistant to  clean-up after a spill. The 2010 Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill in Michigan cost more to clean up than any spill in the U.S., including the BP oil rig blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico.

    The dark side of tar sands oil is casting a shadow on the Great Lakes. Plans to ship tar sands crude in tankers and tanker barges on the lakes are moving forward. The environmental group Alliance for the Great Lakes warns that the lakes’ shipping fleets and ports are not prepared to deal with the hazards this poses.

    Permits are being sought for construction of a $20 million dock in Superior, Wis., that would load tar sands oil from Canada and North Dakota on ships for transport to Midwest oil refineries. As many as 17 oil refineries on the Great Lakes, including some on Lake Michigan, are reported to be increasing their capacity in expectation of tar sands oil shipments.

    Pollution of the lakes by this type of oil is particularly worrisome because, unlike other varieties of petroleum, it doesn’t float on the surface. It sinks to the bottom, where it is difficult to recover and can do more serious ecological damage.

    In a report issued last week, the Alliance pointed to an analysis by the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard that found existing measures on the Great Lakes to deal with tar sands oil spills and recovering submerged oil are inadequate.

    The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, nonetheless, seems not to be worried. It issued the following statement: “Should mid-continent crude oil be shipped via the Great Lakes in the future, the department will ensure that all environmental standards are met and the vital natural resources of the lakes are protected.”

    Port Washington history offers a cautionary tale that suggests such assurances should be taken with ample skepticism. In 1960, the Port Washington Common Council was assured repeatedly that allowing oil tankers to dock in the inner harbor and pump their cargoes of gasoline and fuel oil through underground pipes to storage tanks a mile away posed no environmental risks or any other kind of risks.

    The city signed an agreement with River States Oil Co. that allowed that to happen in return for an annual payment of $3,600 or more depending on the amount of petroleum off-loaded here. (The payment was paltry even for the mid-20th century; at its peak, it came to about $8,000.)

    The result of that decision was very nearly a conflagration that would have destroyed a large area of the city, likely with loss of life.

    How anyone could think it was a good idea to invite tankers that could carry as much as 1.8 million gallons of gasoline to dock in the downtown harbor half a block from the main business street (behind today’s Duluth Trading Co. store where charter fishing boats now moor) is a mind-boggler.

    The novelty of seeing huge ships in the heart of the city, the likes of the historic 380-foot whaleback tanker Meteor, was at first appealing, but that faded after the smell of gasoline and fuel oil permeated the downtown and oil slicks became a regular feature of the harbor.

    Port’s experience as an oil terminal went from annoying to potentially catastrophic on June 1, 1970, when a contractor’s power shovel ruptured the 10-inch gas pipe. More than 12,000 gallons of gasoline gushed into sewers. There were small explosions (one blew off a basement door in Harry’s Restaurant) and a number of fires. Homes were evacuated in fear of the monstrous explosion the volatile liquid and fumes in the sewers made probable. By dint of a brave effort by firefighters, city workers and volunteers to flush the gasoline out of the sewer pipes, the disaster that could have happened didn’t. Even after the sewer threat passed, though, there was fear that the harbor, into which the storm sewers emptied the gasoline, would catch on fire, so thick was the layer of fuel floating on its surface.

    The lesson Port Washington learned 43 years ago is relevant today in the era of tar sands oil: Oil and water don’t mix, but merely putting them together, especially when the water is Lake Michigan, is asking for trouble.

Welfare that works PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 20 November 2013 17:52

The surge in food stamps that has politicians railing against ‘dependency’ is really a sign that many Americans are in economic pain and are taking part in a program that helps

Ozaukee County, virtually tied with Waukesha County as the richest in Wisconsin based on average income, is the 25th wealthiest county in the country and has the second lowest poverty rate, according to the 2000 census.

    Yet a study done by the Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee County United Way organizations found that 1,364 households in Ozaukee County are living in poverty. The study also determined that more than 7,500 Ozaukee households are struggling, meaning they are having difficulty meeting the basic needs of housing, food, child care, health care and transportation.

    So it is safe to say that even in this county where so many are well off, thousands of families are not, and many of them receive assistance from the federal government in trying to meet the most basic need of all—food—in the form of food stamps. That makes them, in the view of increasingly vocal critics of the food stamp program, symptoms of an increasing welfare dependency that threatens America’s character.

    In July, the House of Representatives passed a farm bill that for the first time in 40 years provides no funding for food stamps. Funding could continue under other appropriations, but the House budget calls for reductions in food stamp spending that would require cutting millions of people off of the benefit. The chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has warned of food stamps and other federal assistance programs sending “able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency.”

    Evidence cited in the push against food stamps is the sharp increase over the past five years in the numbers of people receiving the benefit. In 2008, 28 million Americans got food stamps. Last year, the number was 45 million. Eligibility standards were eased by the George W. Bush administration and benefit amounts increased by the Obama administration. These changes were motivated by the financial crisis, which remains the primary force that has driven the cost of the program to $80 billion a year.

     That number is enormous, but it hardly constitutes an argument to roll back the food stamp program. Consider the other numbers:

    The average food stamp household consisting of 2.2 members receives $72 a week in food assistance. The average recipient household has a gross annual income of $8,532. Of the individuals who receive food stamps, 47% are children; 91% of all food stamp benefits go to households living below the poverty level.

     Make no mistake, food stamps are welfare—welfare that works. Without food stamps, many more Americans would be hungry, and about half of them would be children.

    It’s easy for the well fed to rail against free food. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama proclaimed, “No program in our government has surged out of control more dramatically than food stamps.”

    But William A. Galston, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, points out that growth of the food stamp program “mostly reflects worsening economic conditions rather than looser eligibility standards.”

    At the end of an analysis published on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Galston wrote: “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the current attacks on the food stamp program are motivated far more by budget-cutting zeal and anti-government ideology than by defects of the program—and that real disagreement is about the extent of our collective obligation to the least fortunate Americans.”

    Taking food off the tables of the poor in the name of sparing them from dependency and complacency mocks that obligation.

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