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Amid Calls for More Gas Pipeline, Activists Dig In; Strip Search Suit Takes a Time Out; Vermont to Require GMO Labeling; and more

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Amid Calls for More Gas Pipeline, Activists Dig In

Conflict is brewing between opponents of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. project planned for Western Massachusetts and state and federal officials who want to see more natural gas infrastructure in New England. In January, the governors of the six New England states expressed their agreement about a need for more delivery capacity; after that, the persistent cold weather seemed to add emphasis to the arguments in favor of more miles of pipeline.

On April 21, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, visited Hartford and in public statements said that in New England, as opposed to the rest of the country, talk about energy is “not a discussion of abundance. It’s a discussion of, in particular, infrastructure constraints.” Moniz attributed what he described as high and “volatile” energy prices in New England to those constraints.

Meanwhile, ISO New England of Holyoke, which operates the regional grid, formulated a response to a request from the New England governors to do something about the need for additional delivery capacity. ISO New England president and CEO Gordon van Welie wrote in a statement in preparation for Moniz’ visit: “In January the New England Governors requested assistance from ISO New England to ensure that the region benefits from additional pipeline infrastructure as well as additional electric transmission infrastructure to enable increased levels of renewable and non-carbon-emitting energy on the power system.

“The governors’ proposal is a creative solution to address the energy challenges facing the New England region. We are appreciative of the governors’ efforts and look forward to continuing to support their initiative as they work through the stakeholder process.”

In other words, ISO New England is supporting the governors, whose position is also supported by the federal Department of Energy. With that kind of agreement at the state, regional and federal level, the possibility arises that land could be taken by eminent domain for pipelines judged to be essential to the region’s energy security and approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

But the plan by Tennessee Gas to run more pipeline from New York State through Western Mass. to Dracut, Mass., in some cases through water protection zones, has aroused widespread resistance. A dozen towns in Western Mass. are working on resolutions opposing pipelines, or ordinances aimed more generally at barring corporate interests from overriding the wishes of local residents. Pipeline opponents here are looking at the environmental effects of Tennessee Gas projects in other places; one poster on the website nofrackedgasinmass.org alludes to a Tennessee Gas project underway in New Jersey in which drilling in one case, and eroding fill over an installed pipeline in another, led to the collapse of stretches of roadway in the area near High Point State Park.

Some activists say new delivery infrastructure is not only environmentally risky, but is not needed.

“When they say ‘needed,’ they’re citing what they called the ‘shortfall’ this winter,” said Rosemary Wessel, who together with another Cummington resident, Katy Eiseman, started up nofrackedgasinmass.org. “What the shortfall was was a slight dip in the amount of buffer. Even if that shortfall was an actual shortfall, and a constant one, we could make up that shortfall by sealing all the gas leaks in the state, including the nonhazardous leaks—that would make up a third of that shortfall—and extending MassSave [a state program offering financial assistance for home energy conservation] to other income levels.”

Conscious that Congress and energy companies are pushing the Department of Energy to let more natural gas be exported from the United States, which traditionally restricted exports of the fuel to keep it available and affordable for Americans, Wessel points out that the gas that energy companies want to pipe through the region will almost certainly not all go to ensure affordable energy supplies for Massachusetts. “They’re using us to ship gas overseas while also feeding the grid now and then,” she said. “What we need is a focus on efficiency, on fixing leaks, on sustainable energy.”•

 

Strip Search Suit Takes a Time Out

A suit against the Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee by current and former inmates who were strip searched while male security officers held video cameras is on pause as U.S. District Court judge Michael Ponsor considers motions for summary judgment by both sides. The suit, filed in 2011, alleges that the women’s constitutional rights were violated (“A Compromised Position,” February 16, 2012, www.valleyadvocate.com).

The practice the women’s attorneys describe as “needless and humiliating” was described in the original complaint: “With four or more officers present, the inmate must take off all her clothes and perform a series of actions: she must lean forward, lift her arms, lift her breasts and, if large, her stomach, turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks with her hands and cough, and stand up and face the wall. An officer with a video camera stands a few feet away and records the entire strip search. This officer is almost always male.”

A filing by Sally Johnson Van Wright, a social worker at the jail, alleges that two women who stated that they complained to her about videotaping procedures before the suit was filed were not telling the truth. The filing details many measures taken at the jail to preserve inmate’s dignity and privacy by women who understand, according to Van Wright, the special needs of women in prison, many of whom had suffered abuse before their incarceration.

What Van Wright’s statement does not answer, however, is the question of why men were involved in videotaping the women at all. A more informative answer was given the Advocate by Theresa Finnegan, a staff attorney for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department: “It’s illegal for us to hire all women.”

Often a strip search is needed on short notice, Finnegan explained, because the searches are part of the movement of an inmate to a more secure part of the Center when the inmate has been suicidal or belligerent with another inmate, and it’s not always easy for the facility to move a female staff member away from another job to do the videotaping.

Finnegan said the videotaping is done to protect the inmate as well as the staff, in case the inmate should be treated improperly. And alternatives to having a staff member do the videotaping aren’t easy to find, she said. “If you have a stationary camera mounted up in the cell, you’re going to capture a lot more of the person,” she said, “plus the inmate isn’t going to have any idea where the feed is going. As it is, the camera is given to Captain Connie Burke, then it goes into a locked drawer.”

But the court filings by the firm of Howard Friedman P.C., Boston-based attorneys who specialize in police brutality and inhumane treatment of prisoners and represent the women in this case, cast a different light on the issues of male security officers videotaping the moves and searches.

“Before May 2010, the WCC did not have a policy of assigning a female officer to hold the camera if one was available,” the attorneys wrote in their brief. “Males held the camera approximately 70 percent of [the] time. Since Plaintiffs filed suit on September 15, 2011, males have held the camera less than 3 percent of the time. This dramatic change occurred without any comparable change in female staffing levels. The near-total elimination of males’ holding the camera has not caused security problems.”

The brief continues: “Neither Defendants Ashe and Murphy, nor their counsel, nor the expert consultant they hired to help draft their policies, nor their expert witness in this lawsuit has identified any other correctional institution in the country that has a policy permitting male officers to videotape female prisoners being strip searched under any circumstances, much less in non-emergency situations.”

Finnegan said that after the suit was filed, the Center reviewed its policies and procedures because it often reviews them to see if there is room for improvement. She said that now men videotape the moves and searches about 1 percent of the time—far less often than before the suit was filed—but insisted that “we have not made the changes because we feel that we were doing anything wrong or violating anybody’s constitutional rights.”

Ponsor is expected to make a decision about the requests for summary judgment in “the near future.”•

 

Newspapers Fall Behind in Digital Ad Revenue

New figures on ad revenue from the Newspaper Association of America don’t paint a happy picture. Between 2012 and 2013, ad revenue in printed daily and Sunday newspapers fell 8.6 percent, to $17.3 billion. Digital advertising rose 1.5 percent, to $3.4 billion—not enough to make up for the losses in print advertising.

And the long-term picture in terms of digital advertising is abysmal: newspapers’ share of the digital ad market dropped from 14 percent in 2003 to 8 percent in 2013. What should make newspaper executives feel even more chagrined is that in 2013, digital ad revenues across all platforms soared to $42.8 billion, the first time that revenues from digital advertising outpaced the take from television advertising ($40.1 billion).•

 

Vermont to Require GMO Labeling

Vermont has passed a law requiring genetically engineered (GMO) foods, including “raw agricultural commodities,” to be labeled beginning July 1, 2016. The legislation exempts processed foods intended for immediate consumption and foods served in restaurants.

The Vermont law also contains a provision for establishing a fund to defend the state against lawsuits—which are expected—by food or biotech businesses that oppose the law. The state is hoping to receive private donations to support this fund, and to use public money only to make up for shortfalls.

Unlike GMO labeling laws passed in Maine and Connecticut and another waiting for a vote in Massachusetts, the Vermont law has no “trigger” clause—a clause requiring that several other states pass similar laws before it can take effect. The Massachusetts law, like the Connecticut law, has a trigger clause requiring that four other Northeastern states pass similar laws; the total population of the five states, including Massachusetts, would have to amount to 20 million.

Since Vermont has now passed a GMO labeling law, and Connecticut already has one, Massachusetts, which is contiguous to both, would be part of a three-state grouping if its law passed. But since all New England has a population of only about 16 million, the passage of a GMO law in a populous state such as New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania would be needed to meet the 20 million bar.

The passage of the Vermont law is “good news, certainly, for all consumers in Vermont,” said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, which is part of a coalition of consumer groups that support the Massachusetts law. “It is additionally good news for Massachusetts and, I would argue, for the Northeast, as so many are working here to get basic GMO labeling passed. Vermont is the third in this area to pass a bill, and it’s such a strong bill, and it has no trigger. I do think that will give us more momentum here in Massachusetts.”

The passage of the Vermont law occurs at a time when biotech and food companies are actively opposing GMO labeling, which is not required by the federal Food and Drug Administration. One food industry association, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, is lobbying the FDA hard for a rule that would make GMO labeling voluntary and preempt state laws that require it. And in Congress, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) has filed a bill that would prohibit mandatory GMO labeling and nullify state GMO labeling laws.•

 

Holyoke By Bike

Holyoke’s Fairfield Avenue Historic District, in the Highlands section of the city, is a neighborhood rich in Victorian mansions that date back to the 19th century.

And what better way to check out the district on a spring day than by bike?

On Saturday, May 3, the Wistariahurst Museum sponsors a bike tour of the district, led by local history/bikepath enthusiast Craig Della Penna. The tour begins at 11 a.m. at Kennedy Park and costs $15 per person. (Raindate: Sunday, May 4, also at 11.) To register or for more information, go to www.wistariahurst.org or call (413) 322-5660.

 

 

 

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