- Associated Press - Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald, Aug. 21, 2014

A major milestone was reached this week in the follow-up to the oil train explosion that killed 47 people last summer in Lac-Megantic, Quebec: Canadian investigators released a final report blaming lax government oversight and poor rail company safety practices for the tragic accident.

But although the Canadian government obviously didn’t fulfill its regulatory responsibilities, Canada is still way ahead of the United States in taking steps to prevent another such tragedy. Canada has banned the most decrepit tank cars; Washington, meanwhile, is calling for a drawn-out retirement and retrofitting process that could keep some of the cars in service until at least 2017. This reluctance to take action is putting U.S. communities so far down the track in terms of improved public safety that they’re almost guaranteed to be left behind.

The train that crashed in Quebec in July 2013 was carrying nearly 2 million gallons of volatile North Dakota crude oil in DOT-111 tanker cars. When derailed, DOT-111 cars are easily punctured or ruptured, making them highly vulnerable to leaks and explosions.

The cars’ flaws were first noted in a National Transportation Safety Board study over 20 years ago. And in 2012, the NTSB concluded that the DOT-111s’ “inadequate design” contributed to the severity of a 2009 oil train derailment in Illinois that killed one person and injured several others.

Because of a spike in U.S. crude oil production, moreover, the number of oil car accidents continues to climb: 116 in 2013, more than double the number of all episodes from 1990 to 2009.

Nonetheless, about 98,000 tank cars are in service - and most don’t have the latest safety features. All 72 cars in the Quebec runaway train, for example, were built to the older standard. So any of the major cities through which this train passed before reaching Lac-Megantic - including Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit - could have been the site of an equally devastating derailment, spill and explosion.

In April, Canada barred 5,000 of the most poorly made, puncture-prone DOT-111s from carrying crude oil and ethanol. But in the United States, all DOT-111s will stay in service until at least 2017, under proposed regulations that call for a two-year phase-out of the cars, effective September 2015, unless they’re retrofitted to comply with new safety standards.

Announced last month by the federal Department of Transportation, the rules would apply only to “high-hazard flammable trains” that carry at least 20 cars of volatile liquids. DOT-111s that haven’t been retrofitted could still be used beyond 2015 on trains with 19 or fewer tank cars - a massive loophole.

The U.S. DOT realizes it’s dangerous to keep shipping volatile crude in substandard rail cars. The agency even said as much in the news release announcing the proposal: “The safety risk presented by transporting Bakken crude oil by rail is magnified both by an increasing volume of Bakken being shipped … throughout the U.S. and the large distances over which the product is shipped.”

To have this knowledge and still fail to act on it is to take a cynical view of the well-being of the people whom the agency is supposed to be protecting - and it gives public service a bad name.

The Journal Inquirer at Manchester (Conn.), Aug. 21, 2014

Tennessee recently became another of those battlegrounds between tea party advocates and their opponents.

Supreme Court justices in Tennessee are subject to retention elections. Those running for re-election this month had been appointed by a Democratic governor and were therefore suspect in the eyes of the right-of-center leadership of the Republican Party.

With the support of Americans for Prosperity - a fund largely supported by the Koch Brothers, those demons of the left - money was poured into the election in an attempt to unseat the sitting justices. According to the nonpartisan group Justice at Stake, this was countered by donations to support the sitting judges, who won the election handily.

But the battle in Tennessee is merely a starting point.

According to a report in The New York Times, the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group, “plans to spend at least $5 million on judicial races this year in places like North Carolina, where more than half of the state Supreme Court seats are in the ballot. Conservatives are also closely following races in Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas.”

When judicial officers are forced into election campaigns such as this, one can only wonder about their ability to be nonpartial. Class action lawyers, as an example, have poured money into judicial electoral races for years. We often see them choosing forums in obscure states, which in many instances have justices who are elected and to whom they have donated funds.

To quote an interesting comment in The Times from Lew Conner, reported to be a “veteran donor to Republican campaigns in Tennessee” who once was on the State Board of Appeals:

“I kind of look at it like they are carpetbaggers,” Conner said of the outside groups opposing the sitting justices. “Why do they have to come in and tell us in Tennessee how to elect our judiciary?”

He added, “It’s the harbinger of perhaps the new American politics: being able to say and do anything and get away with it if you have the Yankee dollar, the almighty Yankee dollar.”

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