State Police Want Charges in Quabbin Incident
By Stephanie Kraft
State police are pressing for charges against five men and two women originally from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore who were allegedly found at Quabbin Reservoir at 12:30 a.m. May 14, long after the reservoir’s recreational areas were supposed to be closed. The seven identified themselves as chemical engineers and said they were at Quabbin because of professional interest in the reservoir, which provides drinking water to the Boston area as well as Wilbraham, Chicopee and a part of South Hadley.
State police did not arrest the group, but notified the FBI, since the presence of unauthorized people after hours near vital infrastructure such as a public water suppy can be a precursor to a terrorist act. The FBI said it had no information suggesting that any of the seven were linked to terrorist activity.
The state police moved to charge the seven with trespassing, but at a show-cause hearing in district court in Belchertown, the clerk of the court issued a continuance without a finding rather than a criminal complaint.
But the state police challenged the clerk’s action by appealing the continuance, asking for judicial review. The Quabbin, with its 412 billion gallons of potable water, is “a critical infrastrucure, a key resource,” state police spokesman David Procopio told the Advocate. “Even before [the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15], since 9/11 the state’s critical infrastructure sites have warranted closer scrutiny when there is trespassing, vandalism or what might usually be considered a minor crime. The time they were found up there, 12:30 in the morning—their statements that they were there because of their interest in engineering—it’s not the same as if some kids were found up there at 10 o’clock drinking beer. So because of that we believe that there should be a record of charges issued.” At press time the issue had not been resolved.•
The NSA, Your Phone and Bernie Sanders
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has filed a bill that would limit the wide powers of surveillance currently used by the FBI and the NSA (National Security Agency) to monitor telephone communications. The bill comes in the wake of revelations by the Guardian that the agencies were harvesting large volumes of data from telephone calls, email and Internet.
Sanders’ bill, his office said in a press statement, “would put an end to open-ended court orders that have resulted in wholesale data mining by the NSA and FBI.” It would require that investigators have a reason based on specific information to get court approval to monitor a suspect’s business records.
And an important provision, one that would curb the ability of the agencies to go on fishing expeditions, would eliminate the presumption that anyone “known to” the target of an investigation can be investigated as well.
The bill would also introduce a new degree of accountability to the security agencies. Current communications surveillance as authorized by the Patriot Act, Section 215, requires that information about the number of such search orders be given to the intelligence and judiciary committees of the House and Senate. Sanders’ bill would require that that information, and reports on the usefulness of each communication monitored by the FBI and NSA, be given to all members of Congress.• —SK
Student Loan Debt High in Three-State Area
As Congress debates whether to let interest rates on student loans double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent as of July 1, a new report from Congress’s Joint Economic Committee shows that the average student debt load in New Hampshire is the heaviest in the country. The average student loan debt in that state is $33,113—higher than in Vermont, where the average student debt load is $28,860, the seventh highest in the country, or Massachusetts ($27,745).
In New Hampshire, 75 percent of college graduates have student loans yet to pay off, and 12.5 percent of those borrowers under age 30 are 90 or more days late with their payments, putting them at risk for default, according to the report. In Massachusetts, 65 percent have loans, and 12.9 percent are 90 or more days behind; in Vermont, 63 percent have loans, and 9.8 percent are 90 days or more overdue with payments.
Though debt load is heavy in this part of New England, delinquency rates are relatively low compared to rates of 14 percent and over in many states. But the ratio of debt load to students’ rationalized annual earnings here is very high: 82 percent in Vermont, the highest in the country; 76 percent in New Hampshire; and 62 percent in Massachusetts. At the low end of that spectrum is California, with only 36 percent.
According to the report, student loan debt in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 2007, when the figure was $550 billion. In the first quarter of this year, it had reached nearly $1 trillion.• —SK
Solutia Will Switch to Cleaner Power
The Solutia manufacturing plant in Springfield will replace its coal-burning facility with a gas-fired one by 2016, its owners have announced. Eastman Chemical, which bought Solutia last year, said last week that it would make the change after two advocacy groups, Arise for Social Justice and the Partnership for Policy Integrity, threatened to sue to force Solutia to reduce its toxic emissions. Solutia, long known for producing ingredients for shatter-resistant, soundproof glass, also manufactures other plastic products. Its facility employs 425.
Contributing to the controversy was the fact that the state Department of Environmental Protection had delayed action on the facility’s air quality permit. Its last permit, issued in 2005—years before Tennessee-based Eastman bought Solutia, whose original corporate parent was Monsanto—expired in 2010, but the state and the company have not yet negotiated a new permit, which would carry stricter pollution standards.
Michaelann Bewsee, executive director of Arise, said “We appreciate the importance of Solutia as a local employer, but the company shouldn’t be burning coal near downtown Springfield.” Springfield, Arise and PFPI noted, has rates of childhood asthma that are “significantly higher than the state average.”
The premises in Springfield’s Indian Orchard neighborhood that are occupied by Solutia and another plastics manufacturer, INEOS Melamines, have a troubled history with regard to air pollution. Last year Eastman Chemical and INEOS paid $970,000 to settle charges brought by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice; the charges stemmed from alleged air quality violations that occurred between 2003 and 2010, before Eastman Chemical bought Solutia. Those violations were not related to the burning of coal, but to failure to properly calibrate chemical leak detection equipment and implement plant-wide leak detection plans.• —SK
(North) Field of Dreams
Northfield (pop. 2,883), the last Massachusetts town before you enter Vermont or New Hampshire, is so quiet as you drive through, so austerely elegant in its characteristic New England way, that you wouldn’t know it was internationally famous—made so by the historic Northfield Mount Hermon school, whose stately campus on the Northfield side is now untenanted pending the arrival of new occupants.
That emptiness has given Northfield a transitional feel, which may have created a timely moment for the forum the town has created to ask residents for ideas to inform and enliven a new master plan.
And residents have responded. On the serious side, they’ve said they want to preserve the town’s historic heritage and enhance its natural beauty (Northfield is the only town in Massachusetts that’s laid out on both sides of the Connecticut River). On the lively side, they’re pushing a pub, new bikeways and more town events, as well as a gas station to keep a few dollars in town and lure motorists headed for the mountains up the way (at the moment, there is no gas station in Northfield).
Many say the town needs new businesses, but not all are agreed on how much plans should focus on commercial development and how much they should aim at furbishing up and promoting the river and hiking trails in order to draw tourism while maintaining the character of the town. Northfield has a median household income of $61,667, a little lower than the state median of $62,859 and much higher than the national median of $50, 502. Town residents spend an estimated $23,500,000 a year on goods and services, nearly all of it out of town.
The Master Plan Steering Committee is still taking suggestions; the last day to submit them is June 30. Draft chapters of matters under consideration in the plan can be viewed at http://www.northfield.ma.us/id=1154; residents can send their ideas to email@example.com, or to the Town Hall at 69 Main Street, Northfield, Mass. 01360.• —SK
Mass Senators Not Friendly to GMO Labeling
Support for state rep Ellen Story’s bill to require labeling of genetically modified food (“Amherst Legislator Pushes for Food Labeling Law,” June 20, 2013, http://www.valleyadvocate.com) is coming from the grassroots in the Valley as Pat Fiero of Leverett circulates a MoveOn petition for the labeling to the state.
“We, the undersigned citizens of the commonwealth, call upon your leadership to enact legislation requiring the labeling of all foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients and of all seeds that have been produced through genetic engineering, otherwise referred to as ‘GMO foods’ or ‘GMOs,’’’ the petition reads. “We have a right to know what is in the food we eat, what we are feeding to our families, and what we are growing in our farms and gardens.
“We are asking for a GMO labeling bill to be signed into law this session that will be effective at preserving the transparency of our food supply and robust enough to withstand constitutional challenge. Our children and future generations will thank you for taking action now to protect the genetic integrity of our food, our seeds, and our bodies.” (To sign on to Fiero’s petition, go here.)
Even as the bill filed by Story (D-Amherst) makes its way through the legislative process, opposition at the national level to the rights of states to require such labeling has surfaced. Late last month, 71 U.S. senators, including Massachusetts senators Elizabeth Warren and Mo Cowan, voted against an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have guaranteed the rights of states to require such labeling. The amendment was offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who pointed out that labeling is already required for 3,000 different ingredients in food that the government does not deem unsafe, such as high-fructose corn syrup and transfats. But the amendment failed with a vote of 27 for, 71 against.
Through her press secretary, Lacey Rose, Warren issued this statement about her vote: “The Senator supports labeling and supports the rights of states to set labeling standards based on health and safety. She supports the purpose of the Sanders amendment but voted no because the proposal would have eliminated the ability of the FDA to force states to comply with a more pro-consumer standard in the future.” Exactly what provision in the amendment would have such an effect is unclear.
The vote in the Senate resolves nothing since, at the moment, the states have the right to require labeling, just as they have the right to regulate other things about food. But Sanders offered the amendment because Monsanto and other companies that apply genetic technology to food are hostile to state labeling requirements and have waged expensive campaigns to combat them, in some cases by threatening to sue. The Massachusetts bill is strategically important because Connecticut recently passed a bill requiring labeling of such foods, but it is prohibited from going into effect until four other states pass such bills—and at least one has to be a state located next to Connecticut.• —SK