Caspian Ecology Teeters On the Brink

CREDIT: NPA GROUP
Science 18 January 2002:
Vol. 295 no. 5554 pp. 430-433
DOI: 10.1126/science.295.5554.430

As nations around the world’s largest lake bicker over oil rights, the wildlife of the Caspian Sea is in a state of siege from which it may never recover

ASTRAKHAN, RUSSIA—Lev Khuraskin stepped gingerly across the shoal, avoiding the dead seagulls and cormorants rotting in the sand and their squawking, orphaned chicks. The rail-thin biologist, his face leathered from decades on the sun-drenched Caspian Sea, crept up to a seal lolling near the water and straddled it, pressing his hand against the back of its neck to subdue it as a colleague skittered over to draw blood. Fit seals don’t like being messed with, but this emaciated and listless male submitted calmly. “It’s very ill,” says the team’s leader, Vladimir Blinov of VECTOR, Russia’s State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology.

The seal that lay dying on Malyi Zhemchuzhnyi Island is one of the latest casualties in the Caspian Sea’s unfolding ecological drama. Sturgeon, prized for their caviar, are hovering near enough to oblivion that three of the five nations around the Caspian’s shores—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia—agreed last June to an unprecedented 6-month ban on fishing the species. Too little, too late, some fear. “The question is whether the species can be saved at all,” says Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit based in New York City.

Adding to the mounting horror of ecologists, Mnemiopsis leidyi, a comb jelly notorious for having devastated anchovy populations in the Black Sea, invaded the Caspian a few years ago. New findings suggest that this voracious free-floater has done a similar number on the Caspian’s kilka, or sprat, by “driving numerous species of zooplankton toward extinction,” says ecologist Henri Dumont of Ghent University in Belgium. Mnemiopsis is more bad news for the seals, which feed on kilka and are already reeling from epidemics of canine distemper virus in 1997 and 2000 that killed thousands.

If the Caspian’s wildlife only had natural invaders to deal with, that would be bad enough, but this lake—the largest in the world—is a pressure cooker of political and commercial forces. Ranged around its shores are the growing economy of Russia in the north and fundamentalist Iran in the south, with Muslim ex-Soviet republics in between. Both Russia and the United States are vying for influence in the region, a process accelerated by the war in nearby Afghanistan.

Complicating the picture are the Caspian’s vast oil reserves. The Soviets largely ignored this resource, but the newly independent republics are keen to exploit it. Production in the Caspian is expected to ramp up fivefold to 5 million barrels a day by 2020. “For the time being, there’s no proof that oil exploration or extraction will pose a major hazard to the Caspian environment—if it’s done properly,” says Arkadiusz Labon, a Toronto-based fisheries consultant who coordinated a major fish stock survey in the Caspian last year. However, he and others note, a major spill—always a possibility in this geologically unstable region (see sidebar)—could spell disaster.

Oil in troubled waters

Two millennia ago the Caspian was a sacred place for Zoroastrians, who would meditate at temples near jets of flaming gases that vented from the naphtha-rich sands of the Apsheron Peninsula, a nub of land jutting into the Caspian in present-day Azerbaijan. Later generations of Persians, still awestruck by the pillars of fire, recognized a commodity and by the late 1500s were scooping petroleum from shallow wells.

True development of the oil fields began in 1875 when Ludvig and Robert Nobel, brothers of renowned Swedish industrialist Alfred, bought up land near Baku. Boring deeper wells, they and their crew learned how to work Apsheron’s fickle semifluid sands. Oil production increased by 50 times over the next decade, reaching 1 million tons a year. When after a brief independence Azerbaijan was absorbed into the Soviet Union, the Nobels were out and central planning was in.

Although the Soviets discovered three giant oil fields in the Caspian basin, they left them mostly untapped. They found it easier and less costly to extract oil from their vast petroleum reserves in western Siberia and even went as far as banning offshore drilling in the north Caspian to protect the sturgeon’s feeding grounds and spawning migration routes.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, oil investments from the West poured into the Caspian, turning the region into a “Wild East.” But although oil exploration has not yet had a major impact on local ecology, the same cannot be said for fishers out to make a fast buck by harvesting the Caspian’s other precious resource: caviar.

Of fish and jellyfish

With their long snouts and ridged, scaleless bodies, the young sturgeon swimming circles in a glass tank at the Caspian Fisheries Research Institute here in Astrakhan look more like baby dinosaurs than fish. But having long outlived the dinosaurs since debuting in the fossil record 200 million years ago, the venerable sturgeon is facing its toughest test yet. The Caspian is home to the world’s biggest population of sturgeon. The sea’s four major varieties—stellate sturgeon, or sevruga (Acipenser stellatus), Russian sturgeon (A. guldenstadti), Persian sturgeon (A. persicus), and beluga (Huso huso)—supply about 90% of the total caviar harvested worldwide. It’s a lucrative commodity: As Science went to press, one firm, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, was advertising sevruga caviar at $1448 per kilogram. Beluga roe, meanwhile, was fetching more than $2500 per kilogram. Russia alone says it hauled in $40 million last year from caviar exports, although some observers claim that the figure for legal exports was closer to $100 million.

The sturgeon’s enemies are legion, but poachers may be taking the heaviest toll. Last year they fueled a shadow caviar market estimated at $400 million, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry. Rampant poaching since the Soviet meltdown has sent sturgeon stocks crashing, with beluga numbers less than 10% of what they were 2 decades ago, the government estimates. Last year Russia began working with Interpol to try to crack down on smuggling, but most observers say it will take years, if not decades, to stamp it out. Other factors in the decline include dams on the Volga River that cut off access to spawning areas, and perhaps pollutants that accumulate in fat and may render eggs infertile. “The whole ecology of the rivers has changed,” says biologist Ellen Pikitch of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City.

Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) got three Caspian nations to agree to a 6-month moratorium on fishing sturgeon last June. Some experts contend that the ban, which ended on 1 January, did little good for the sturgeon, because it took hold after the main fishing season in the spring.

A recent census of Caspian fish corroborates that view. Last summer, the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP), a World Bank and European Union initiative, undertook a rare comprehensive survey of Caspian fish stocks. Over 6 weeks last August and September, the CEP team used sonar to chart and characterize fish populations everywhere but in the coastal waters of Turkmenistan, which did not allow access. Sonar is an imperfect technique, particularly for bottom-feeding fish like sturgeon, so the team captured and released fish as well.

Although the researchers are still analyzing their data, the emerging picture is dire indeed. “We found very few mature sturgeon,” says Labon. “That’s a sure sign of dramatic overfishing.” As expected, the team found ample young sturgeon, indicating that hatcheries in the Volga delta and Iran have averted total calamity. But the hulking fish are late breeders, taking years to reach sexual maturity. That means poachers and other fishers will be netting more and more juveniles in an increasingly frustrating search for caviar.

Figure
Soon a scene of the past?

Russians haul in sturgeon on the Volga delta near Astrakhan.

CREDIT: HANS-JURGEN BURKARD, COURTESY OF CAVIAR EMPTOR

Labon argues that a 10-year fishing ban—without loopholes such as a permissible “scientific” catch—is essential to rescue the sturgeon from extinction. However, a total moratorium could backfire by driving the entire caviar trade underground, argues NRDC’s Speer. Her organization, for one, is campaigning for a ban on trade of beluga only, the most endangered species. It will make that pitch when the CITES standing committee on sturgeon meets in March to review this year’s proposed catch quotas. NRDC will also lobby the next conference of CITES parties in November to elevate beluga to the most endangered Appendix One list, which would ban beluga export from any signatory nation.

The sturgeon is not the only Caspian fish under siege; some other species are facing a more insidious, if spineless, threat. First sighted off the Iranian coast in 1998, the comb jelly Mnemiopsis within months had managed to swarm across much of the rest of the Caspian. The delicate, luminescent creature, looking more like a miniature starship than an animal, appears to have stowed away in the ballast water of ships in the Black Sea, reaching the Caspian via the Volga-Don Canal.

Based on the jelly’s voracious habits in the Black Sea, researchers expected it to gulp its way through the bottom of the Caspian’s food chain, grazing on zooplankton that are the staple of kilka and many other fish. Over the past couple of years, says Labon, professional fishers along the Caspian have been asking, “Where have all the kilka gone?” In Iranian waters, Ghent’s Dumont adds, “they don’t catch anything but jellies now.” The CEP fish survey spotted this decline. According to Labon, the survey found that kilka and herring populations “are severely depressed” compared to 2 years ago. His team is still crunching numbers to determine precisely how much these fish have declined.

A kilka crash is bad news for the fishing industry in Iran, where there’s a big market for the sprats. But for the beleaguered seals that feed on kilka, it could be a crushing blow.

Hunting a killer

It has been a tough few years for the Caspian’s seals. Two years ago, a mystery epidemic killed several thousand of them, including many young ones. A CEP seal ecotoxicology team, led by Susan Wilson of the Tara Seal Research Centre in Northern Ireland, and the VECTOR group—working independently—unmasked canine distemper virus as the likely villain (Science, 22 September 2000, p. 2017). When seals began dying in droves again last spring, both teams headed out to different parts of the Caspian to find out why.

Their preliminary, unpublished findings suggest that canine distemper is not the seals’ only foe. After sampling dead or dying seals washed up on the Apsheron Peninsula, Wilson’s team found that—unlike what they had observed in 2000—the victims were mostly adults. Analyzing tissue back in the lab along with samples from Iran and Turkmenistan, Wilson and her team so far have found no sign of canine distemper or any other virus.

FigureFigure
Hard times.

The CEP ecotoxicology team’s Hormoz Asadi observes a seal on the Apsheron Peninsula. The comb jelly Mnemiopsis leidyi (top) may have abetted last year’s die-off.

CREDITS: (TOP TO BOTTOM) LAURENCE P. MADIN/WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION; S. WILSON

Wilson’s team believes that pollution may be a contributor to last year’s die-off. The researchers are now testing their samples for levels of the pesticide DDT and other long-lived pollutants. Such chemicals are also the prime suspect in the seals’ plummeting birthrate, says Wilson. But she and her colleagues are pursuing other lines of inquiry, including bacterial infections and poor nutrition.

The VECTOR team’s findings add more intrigue. Blinov’s group says it detected a flu strain last spring, similar to one that jumped from birds into people in Hong Kong in 1997, in some of the dead seals they had sampled in 2000, as well as a nearly identical strain in a single sick seal in Russia’s Lake Baikal. “If avian viruses could overcome host barriers and infect humans in Hong Kong and cause pandemic outbreaks in seals,” says Blinov, “we thought, ‘What might occur tomorrow?’” Tests for virus in seals sampled last year on Malyi Zhemchuzhnyi Island are still under way, but they have come up negative so far.

That jibes with the CEP ecotox findings, but it fails to penetrate the mystery of where canine distemper is lurking, or whether the avian influenza that VECTOR spotted was a red herring or a continuing threat to the seals. Wilson speculates that canine distemper, at least, could reemerge in a couple of years. She notes that the evidence is looking more solid that distemper was behind a mass die-off in 1997 and may periodically afflict Caspian seals.

If canine distemper does resurface next year, the seals could be in for a double whammy. Both the CEP and VECTOR teams have reported that many ill or dead seals were underweight and some were emaciated, which may point to a food shortage. Wilson carried out a limited survey of seal feces collected on Apsheron last year and found that kilka appeared to make up only a tiny proportion of their diet, suggesting that the seals had to make do with less-nutritious prey. “We need to extend these diet studies,” Wilson says. But it does seem to bear the tentacle-marks of Mnemiopsis.

Dumont and other experts argue that steps must be taken quickly to rein in Mnemiopsis. After Mnemiopsislevels in the Caspian last fall exceeded those ever reached in the Black Sea, a scientific advisory committee called on littoral nations to approve plans to unleash a predator this spring to control the invader. Their choice was Beroe ovata, a heftier comb jelly that dines almost exclusively on MnemiopsisBeroe slipped into the Black Sea in 1997 and quickly brought the villain to heel. There, Mnemiopsis populations had plunged so low by last year that it was hard to find specimens for analysis. Beroe, says Dumont, “is almost too good to be true.”

Azerbaijan and Iran are pressing hard for Beroe to be introduced, but it’s unclear whether the other Caspian governments will climb aboard. Signs look unfavorable for agreement on something as contentious as biological pest control—no matter how benign Beroe would appear—when tensions are already running high over oil rights.

Political hardball

Like 49ers staking claims in California, the five littoral nations have asserted overlapping territorial claims in the Caspian itself. Last summer, Iranian gunships chased an Azeri research vessel out of waters claimed by both countries. A meeting planned for last October at which the countries had agreed to demarcate borders was abandoned after the 11 September terror attacks, although the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are scheduled to visit Moscow later this month in part to revive the negotiations.

FigureFigure
Eternal flames.

At the Surakhany Fire Temple, ancient Persians meditated on Baku’s perpetually burning hills, including the Kirmaky gas seep (top).

CREDIT: MIKE SIMMONS/CASP

The Caspian nations are playing hardball because their oil is considered a major prize by Western powers. The newly independent states could act as a counterweight to OPEC, because the Caspian oilfields would greatly augment the few reserves—including Siberia and the North Sea—not controlled by the Middle East-dominated cartel. Caspian oil “can offset [OPEC's] efforts to keep prices high and their use of high prices for political dictates,” says Brenda Shaffer, research director of Harvard University’s Caspian Studies Program.

Apart from Russia, the three countries with the largest Caspian reserves—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—have welcomed alliances with the West, which they think will help them convert their black gold into cash and limit Russian influence in their affairs. Beyond oil and gas, the region is important to the United States, which “needs to develop friends like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in the Muslim world, due to their clear separation of religion and state,” says Shaffer. Russia, meanwhile, has bolstered its sphere of influence by strengthening ties with Iran and forming alliances with other ex-Soviet littoral states.

Sound like a powder keg waiting to be lit? Quite so, says Terry Adams, a senior associate at Cambridge Energy Research Associates and founding president of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company oil consortium: “The seeds of future Caspian conflict were planted early.” And with an international effort to safeguard the Caspian’s ecology nowhere in sight, the lake itself can only suffer in the process.

Science. ISSN 0036-8075 (print), 1095-9203 (online)

Fracking Has Formerly Stable Ohio City Aquiver Over Earthquakes

Fracking Has Formerly Stable Ohio City Aquiver Over Earthquakes

Q

By Mark Niquette

When Youngstown, Ohio, shook on Sept. 29, Karen Fox thought her daughter was crashing down the stairs.

“It rumbled enough where you could hear the windows shaking,” Fox said in a telephone interview. “I ran downstairs and said, ‘My God, are you OK?’ And she looked at me and she says, ‘I was running upstairs to see if you were OK.’”

Earthquakes weren’t recorded around Youngstown until D&L Energy Inc. began injecting wastewater from drilling into a 9,300-foot disposal well in December 2010. From March through Nov. 25, there were nine in an area of about 4.5 square miles west of the shaft, according to the state-coordinated Ohio Seismic Network.

As hydraulic fracturing produces natural gas by forcing chemically treated water and sand underground, groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council question whether the risks of the process are worth it. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report Dec. 8 linked so-called fracking in Wyoming to contaminated groundwater. Now, with temblors in states including Ohio, Arkansas and Texas that researchers say may have been caused by wastewater wells, residents also have to worry about their houses falling apart, said Fox.

“Back in March, when these first started, nobody was thinking anything of it — it’s just Mother Nature,” said Fox, a 46-year-old medical secretary and president of the city’s West Side Citizen’s Coalition. As earthquakes continue to hit, “more people are getting more concerned.”

Not Our Fault

Scientists such as Jeffrey Dick, chairman of Youngstown State University’s geology department, said that though the quakes’ timing and location suggest wells may be to blame, more data is needed. The National Academy of Sciences has said a committee will release a report on the issue next year.

Ben Lupo, president and chief executive of D&L Energy, said in a telephone interview that he doesn’t think his well is causing them and that “if these things weren’t safe, we would not put them in.” The well wasn’t operating during the Nov. 25 earthquake because it was the day after Thanksgiving, he said.

About 7 million barrels of wastewater from drilling have been injected annually into Ohio wells since 1985 without incident because the practice is closely regulated by federal laws and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Thomas E. Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a trade association with more than 1,450 members.

Surrendering to Panic

“There’s people that are simply opposed to oil and gas development, and they’ll seize on any issue, no matter what the issue is, and no matter what the facts, and try to use that to create hysteria,” Stewart said in a telephone interview from Granville.

The earthquakes in Youngstown, which is roughly equidistant from Cleveland and Pittsburgh, ranged from 2.1 to 2.7 on the Richter scale, the Ohio Seismic Network said. Earthquakes with magnitude of about 2.0 or less on the Richter scale, which has no upper limit, are not commonly felt by people, according to the U. S. Geological Survey. The Aug. 23 earthquake that had an epicenter in Virginia and was felt across the East Coast had a 5.8 magnitude.

New YorkPennsylvaniaMarylandWest Virginia, Ohio and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee sit atop the Marcellus and Utica shale formations and the states have been wrestling with how to regulate drilling and fracking to tap natural gas as deep as 12,000 feet below the earth’s surface. Governor John Kasich has said the practice “could change Ohio,” and has even proposed having his state, IndianaMichigan and Pennsylvania run their vehicle fleets on compressed natural gas.

Following the Fluid

Still, as companies including Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) and Halliburton Co. (HAL) are benefiting from fracking — and more disposal wells are drilled — Dick urged caution.

“You certainly don’t want have an injection well that’s coincident with earthquakes, and then five months from now we get a 5.5 magnitude quake that knocks down a couple buildings,” Dick said in a telephone interview from Youngstown.

The state required D&L Energy to conduct a test using radioactive material to trace whether the fluid being injected in the well is going only to the areas allowed by its permit, said Tom Tomastik, deputy chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management.

Blanket Ban

D&L Energy, a 26-year-old closely held company based in Youngstown, has agreed to put a concrete plug at the bottom of the well if tests show that fluid is reaching bedrock levels, Lupo said. There has been no unusual seismic activity at the state’s other 190 permitted injection wells, Tomastik said.

“Just to blanket say that we’re going to put a moratorium on drilling or a moratorium on disposal when we don’t really know what is happening, that’s, I don’t think, the way to go,” Tomastik said.

The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission did stop well disposal in August after a swarm of earthquakes. There were about 1,250 quakes recorded through July after two injection wells started operating last year, said Scott Ausbrooks, geohazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey in Little Rock.

Ausbrooks did a study with the University of Memphis and concluded there was “a plausible relationship between the injection wells and the earthquakes” after a previously unknown fault system was discovered, he said.

The state Oil and Gas Commission ordered that one injection well be shut down and operators agreed to stop using three others, “erring on the side of caution and public protection,” Shane Khoury, the commission’s deputy director and general counsel, said in a telephone interview.

Rocking Texas

After the wells were shut down, there were only four earthquakes recorded in the area from July through October, down from an average of four a day, Ausbrooks said.

A 2010 study on a swarm of earthquakes in 2008 and 2009 near injection wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University concluded that the quakes “may be the result of fluid injection.”

A 1990 U.S. Geological Survey report found that “injection of fluid into deep wells has triggered documented earthquakes” in Colorado, Texas, New York, New Mexico, Nebraska and Ohio. It highlighted more than 70 quakes in July 1987 in Ashtabula, Ohio, about a kilometer from the bottom of a hazardous-waste disposal well in operation only a year. There had been no other known earthquakes within 30 kilometers since 1857, it said.

Quick Inundation

While well disposal requires sustained pressure as liquid is forced underground, fracking itself is a short, sharp shock as water breaks up rock and is withdrawn.

There have been fewer reports of earthquakes connected with fracking, though the Oklahoma Geological Survey concluded in an August report that it might have induced 43 temblors near Elmore City during 24 hours in January. Cuadrilla Resources Ltd., a U.K.-based explorer, also suspended fracking near Blackpool, England, in June based on a concern it may have triggered a quake.

The incidents raise questions about whether enough is known about the practice to ignore risks in the name of jobs and domestic energy, said Ohio state Representative Robert F. Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat. And the state may become a “dumping ground” for wastewater, he said in a telephone interview from Columbus.

During the first three quarters of 2011, nearly 53 percent of the 368.3 million gallons injected into Ohio’s wells came from out of state, according to data provided by the Natural Resources Department. The number of new permits for injection wells increased to 24 from 10 last year and five in 2009, records show.

“I’m paranoid about it,” Hagan said. “I would travel out to California thinking that anytime now, there could be an earthquake. Well, anytime now, there could be an earthquake in Youngstown.”

Lupo said he plans to have five more disposal wells operating near the city next year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus, Ohio, atmniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

Uzbekistan’s Wasteful Soviet-Era Agricultural System

[The Soviets emptied the Aral Sea trying to water this salty desert.  Maintaining the country’s primary agricultural product, cotton, wastes what little water manages to reach Uzbekistan through the Central Asian river systems, helping to raise Islam Karimov’s anger with Tajikistan over proposed Rogun Dam project, which will strangle Uzbek cotton production for several years.  One of the biggest problems of the CIS countries is switching over from communist-era systems to more modern and efficient models of production or transmission systems, whether that be gas, water, electrical, or highway.  The answer for Uzbekistan is not better irrigation systems, but a better means of producing national profit. 

If the order of the day is to actually to help the citizens of Central Asia, as a pathway to obtaining their gas and oil, then we will produce something on the order of a Central Asian Marshall Plan.  Then you get into the sticky business of saying–”What about Afghanistan and Pakistan reconstruction?”  Or, for that matter, “What Iraq or Libya?”   Every nation on this earth, with few exceptions, needs a hand-up into the Twenty-First Century.  Do we start in Central Asia, now?  Or do we do nothing at all to help the people recover from decades of wasteful destruction and division?  There is a line that has been carved right down the middle of humanity–cut there by the genius Washington and Moscow planners.  How do we mend that rift in humanity? 

A simple problem like an antiquated irrigation system can be traced all the way back to the Cold War.  The damage that mankind does by blindly following blind leaders remains invisible until the shadow of the past passes over something that we want or think that we need today.  Such are the problems that cover both the “Silk Road” and “Pipelinestan.”]

Food shortages emerging

Poor irritation practices, growing population and climatic change all signal a worrisome scenario on the food security front in Uzbekistan, according to a study conducted by Tashkent’s Centre for Economic Research, Uzbekreport.com reported.

The study was supported by the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme. ldus Kamilov, senior research coordinator on the project said, “Water resources are being depleted not only by global warming, but also by the inefficient irrigation systems being used by Uzbekistan’s agricultural producers.”

He claimed that half of the water which could tapped for irrigation is lost and he suggested channels and pumping stations to alleviate the losses. According to Kamilov, a significant proportion of cultivated land in Uzbekistan is irrigated but research shows that 70% of Uzbekistan’s land is not suitable for agricultural production as the land is desert, steppe, or mountainous or soil salinity is too high.

Newt and Other Republican Morons Forget To Register As Agents of Israel

[“Neut” is here to remind us exactly what Bush was all about.  Kissing Netanyahu’s ass, while appeasing the Rapture Republicans is a neocon speciality.  Gingrich steered Reagan’s bankrupt policies through the Congress, while fixating on Monica Lewinski’s stained dress.  He locked the Congress up over Clinton’s sexual deviancies, while ignoring the mess that Bill and Hillary were making with his Bosnian Islamists that he recruited from the Afghan veterans, otherwise known as “al-Qaeda.”  He, more than anyone else, can be said to have “fiddled” while Clinton created the force of international terrorist mercenaries who helped lead us into the perpetual terror war.  It has been American bipartisan policy to unleash Islamist terrorists upon the rest of the world, as seen in the wave of Islamists which we have helped empower in the Middle East.  The zombie Republicans have arisen from the dead to impersonate American statesmen, who all speak with the same voice, uttering the same seductive promises to save America from Obama, knowing full well that every word they speak is a lie.]

Gingrich and company share their Middle East delusions

James Zogby

On Wednesday, six Republican candidates for president appeared before the Republican Jewish Coalition to campaign for Christian votes. There are Jewish Republicans, to be sure, but not enough to make a difference in this primary contest. No, the real prize that drew the candidates to the event were the 40 per cent of GOP primary voters who identify themselves as “born-again” Christians. Many of them fervently believe that Israel can do no wrong and that it is their religious duty to support any and all Israeli policies as a prerequisite to hasten the “Day of Judgment”.

The speeches were mostly filled with hysterical criticism of President Barack Obama’s “appeasement” of Israel’s enemies and hyperbolic praise for Israel (with the exception of John Huntsman, who, after a few pandering platitudes, spoke mostly about the economy and was greeted with stony silence). Because their remarks included such irresponsible charges and promises, I have included significant excerpts to give a flavour of how out of touch today’s Republican Party is with current Middle East realities.

Newt Gingrich has in recent days surged ahead in the polls with statements like this: “As president, on my first day in office, I will issue an executive order directing the US embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem as provided for in the legislation I introduced in Congress in 1995.

“The United States should explicitly reject the concept of a right of return for Palestinian refugees. The so-called right of return is a historically impossible demand that would be a demographic disaster and mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

“The United Nations camps system must be replaced by a system of earned income and property rights to restore dignity and hope to every Palestinian.”

The next day, Mr Gingrich followed up these remarks, in essence rejecting any Palestinian claim to a state: “Remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think it’s tragic.”

Michele Bachmann continued her pattern of lambasting Mr Obama while pandering to the far-right constituency: “It seems as if lately, our president has forgotten the importance of Israel to America and thinks of our relationship only in terms of what we do for Israel. The president is more concerned about Israel building homes on its own land than the threats that Israel and America face in the region.

“Obama improperly calls for Israel to retreat to indefensible 1949 armistice lines with swaps, and to then still face further demands to divide Jerusalem and allow a Palestinian ‘right of return’ to overrun the entire state of Israel. The Obama administration has also unconditionally given the Palestinians unprecedented amounts of US foreign aid, and opposed Congressional efforts to condition aid on the real steps that would bring about peace.

“The so-called Palestinian ‘right of return’ would demographically destroy Israel by swamping it with millions of Arabs who never lived in Israel, thereby turning the world’s only Jewish state into the world’s 23rd Arab state.

“My administration will fully recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.”

In that company, Mitt Romney was eager to sing the same tune: “Over the past three years, President Obama has … chastened Israel. He’s publicly proposed that Israel adopt indefensible borders. He’s insulted its prime minister. And he’s been timid and weak in the face of the existential threat of a nuclear Iran.

“These actions have emboldened Palestinian hard-liners who now are poised to form a unity government with terrorist Hamas and feel they can bypass Israel at the bargaining table. President Obama has immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East.”

Rick Perry continued the refrain, based on his own version of history: “President Obama has systematically undermined America’s relationship with Israel … I support the goal of a Palestinian state, but it should be the Palestinians who meet certain preconditions.

“Instead, the administration has insisted on previously unheard of preconditions for Israel, such as an immediate stop to all settlement activity. President Obama has suggested the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations. And he has instituted the practice of ‘indirect talks’, subverting the Oslo Accords.

“Israel does not need our president demanding gratitude for being the best friend Israel has ever had while his secretary of defence rails that Israel has ‘to get back to the damn table’ with the Palestinians, and his secretary of state questions the viability of Israel’s democracy, even as his ambassador to Belgium blames anti-Semitism among Muslims on Israel’s failure to accommodate the Palestinians.”

All of this went beyond the normal platitudes offered up in an election year. It was dangerous, shameful and crass pandering, making it clear how far today’s Republicans have moved from the reality-based foreign policy of the Bush-Baker era. And while it’s hard to imagine the alternate universe inhabited by these candidates for president, it’s frightening to think of where they would take US-Middle East policy should any of them be elected.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

Pennsylvania Families Got Fracked–Must Find Own Water After Drillers Let Off the Hook

A shale-gas drilling and fracking site in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

[SEE:  A Colossal Fracking Mess]

Driller to stop water to families in Dimock, Pa.

By MICHAEL RUBINKAM, Associated Press

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Families in a northeastern Pennsylvania village with tainted water wells will have to procure their own water for the first time in nearly three years as a natural-gas driller blamed for polluting the aquifer moves ahead with its plan to stop paying for daily deliveries.

Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. ended delivery of bulk and bottled water to 11 families in Dimock on Wednesday. Cabot asserts Dimock’s water is safe to drink and won permission from state environmental regulators last month to stop paying for water for the residents.

A judge on Wednesday declined to issue an emergency order compelling Cabot to continue the deliveries. The judge, who sits on the state’s Environmental Hearing Board, set a Dec. 7 deadline for arguments on a second, related petition filed by lawyers for the families.

The decision left residents who don’t think their water is safe scrambling to find alternate sources.

“We are in desperate need here,” said Scott Ely, 42, who is married with three young children at home.

Ely, a former Cabot employee, said no option was appealing. A creek runs through his property, but the water hasn’t been tested and his wife doesn’t want it piped into their brand-new home. The Cabot contractor who had been supplying their water quoted him a price of $100 a day, he said.

“We’re sitting here with no answers, and I cannot believe Cabot got away with this,” he said.

State regulators previously determined that Cabot drilled faulty gas wells that allowed methane to escape into Dimock’s aquifer. The company denied responsibility, but has been banned from drilling in a 9-square-mile area of Dimock since April 2010.

A Cabot spokesman said Wednesday that the company has worked diligently to resolve the problems in Dimock.

“Cabot has reconditioned water wells, drilled new water wells and installed treatment systems that work properly and effectively. Additionally, we have tested the water and the results have as proven the water meets federal safe drinking water standards,” George Stark said via email.

The families dispute their water supply is safe and say the treatment systems that Cabot has installed in some homes don’t do an adequate job of cleaning it.

As residents prepared to be cut off Wednesday, activists launched an effort to keep them supplied with water.

Craig Stevens, who lives near Dimock and is an outspoken critic of the gas industry, put out a call for volunteers with tanker trucks to deliver bulk water to the residents. He said his goal is to get at least 20 volunteers to commit to one day a month each. Working with Stevens, Pennsylvania-American Water Co. said it will set up an access point at Lake Montrose, a municipal water supply several miles from Dimock.

The state, Stevens said, has “turned its back on the people of Dimock.”

Several environmental groups, meanwhile, urged the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to reverse its decision to allow Cabot to stop delivering water, saying the company has not met its legal obligation to restore the residents’ water supply.

“The department’s decision is irresponsible given that Dimock residents have relied on the trucking of temporary fresh water for drinking, bathing and other household uses,” Jeff Schmidt, director of the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter, wrote to Pennsylvania Environmental Secretary Michael Krancer this week. “The residents’ water supplies have not been restored, either in quantity or quality.”

Dimock, a rural community about 20 miles south of the New York state line, became a flash point in the national debate over unconventional gas drilling in deep shale formations after 18 residential water wells were found to be tainted with methane. Eleven families have sued Cabot in federal court.

Plan Colombia not over

Colombian right-wing paramilitary AUC.

United States Undersecretary of State James Steinberg, speaking in Bogota on October 26, claimed the future relationship between Washington and its most favoured client in Latin America, Colombia, would be based on “reciprocity and mutual respect”.

The stated purpose of Steinberg’s visit was to “re-launch the agenda” of US-Colombian relations” by initiating a “High-Level Partnership Dialogue”.

Steinberg’s remarks tied in with similar recent statements by other senior US diplomatic officials. The new rhetoric has been interpreted as nothing less than “the unofficial end of the ‘Plan Colombia’ era” by Just the Facts, a think tank specialising in US-Latin American relations.

It is true that the Obama administration has sought to distance itself from the multi-billion dollar “aid” package to the brutal Colombian regime initiated during the Clinton administration and expanded by Bush.

But it is clear that underlying foreign policy objectives have not changed.

Plan Colombia was sold to the taxpaying public as a necessary component of the “war on drugs”. In fact, it was a vehicle for furthering the traditional designs of US imperialism, of which there is a long and bitter history in Colombia.

Under Plan Colombia, which first received US congressional funding in 2000, billions of dollars have flowed to the Colombian military supposedly to combat the menace of drug trafficking.

This approach flew in the face of research that consistently showed the best and most cost-effective way to deal with the drug problem was by investing in measures to reduce domestic demand.

Planners were well aware that militarising the problem would not lead to a net reduction of cocaine production in the Andean region, but that scarcely mattered.

The drug war provided a justification for the projection of US power into regions controlled by the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas in southern Colombia. This projection used conventional military units and affiliated paramilitaries who engaged in narcotics trafficking on a far greater scale than any of Colombia’s rebel groups.

Having spent US$7.6 billion, Plan Colombia has yielded some noteworthy results. This includes the violent reduction of the FARC’s estimated strength from 20,000 to 8000 (a point dramatically underscored by the November 4 assassination by Colombian special forces of FARC leader Alfonso Cano).

In reality, however, the targets of Washington’s Plan Colombia offensive are not only armed FARC or National Liberation Army (ELN) guerillas but also any peasant and indigenous groups standing in the way of capitalist globalisation.

Human Rights Everywhere estimates that today, of the 32 indigenous Colombian peoples faced with the imminent threat of annihilation, 20 are directly threatened by the huge expansion of mining operations.

It would therefore be wrong to describe Plan Colombia as a complete failure. Of course, it has failed miserably to make an impact on drug flows into the US, but in other areas it has proven well worth the investment of public monies on behalf of private economic power.

The corporate legal news outlet Mondaq said on October 17: “The mining industry has progressively gained an important role in the Colombian economy …

“In the past decade, Colombian mining and petroleum industries have doubled their exports; in the first trimester alone of 2010 this sector grew 13.2 percent.”

Colombia possesses the largest coal reserves in the hemisphere. Growth in this sector is predicted to increase exponentially in the next few decades.

It is no accident that this capitalist success story the conquest of Colombia痴 natural resources has coincided with the violent implementation of Plan Colombia.

Military and paramilitary aggression, and chemical warfare via aerial spraying by US contractors, has led to tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more 2.5 million internal refugees the largest refugee crisis in the Americas.

Every refugee has a horrifying story to tell, such as the following testimony provided by a member of the Kwet Wala reservation to Colombian human rights monitoring agency Verdad Abierta: “A family that went out of the reservation disappeared in 2001: father, mother and a nine-year-old child. They were found a few days later in a shallow grave near the [right-wing paramilitary] AUC encampment.

“Their severed sexual organs had been stuffed in their mouth. The child had been scalped with a machete.”

Truck Carrying Nuclear Fuel Rods Wrecks on I-40 Near Memphis

[Video on site]

Truck With Uranium Fuel Rods Wrecks on I-40

Natasha Chen10:51 p.m. CST, November 15, 2011

FAST FACTS:

  • A truck carrying uranium fuel rods was rear-ended on I-40 near U.S. Highway 64.
  • Emergency crews responded quickly to assess possible radiation exposure.
  • No injuries and no spill was reported.

natasha.chen@wreg.com

(Memphis, TN 11/15/11) A truck carrying uranium fuel rods was rear-ended on I-40 westbound near U.S. Highway 64 Tuesday night.

Hazmat crews, Tennessee Highway Patrol, Memphis police and Memphis fire personnel responded quickly.

The wreck happened at 7:50 p.m., and the scene was stabilized at 8:21 p.m.

At one point, crews blocked a 500 sq. ft. distance around the vehicle, and two right lanes were blocked.

No fuel rods fell off the truck. The Emergency Management Agency said that their staff also used small devices to monitor the level of radiation in the area. An alarm would sound at the detection of radiation, and the device provides a read on the level of radiation present.

The EMA was not able to say what type of fuel rods were being transported on the truck. Often time, uranium rods are used for nuclear power plants or for hospital radiation therapy.

The EMA also said that vehicles carrying such rods is not unusual in the area. Since Memphis is a distribution hub, many hazardous materials may be transported by rail or by interstate every day.

Emergency crews were relieved no one was hurt and that no spill occurred, but they took every safety precaution necessary, as they would in a more serious spill.