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2. De facto segregation deepening in public education
Latinos and African Americans attend more segregated public schools today than they have for four decades, Professor Gary Orfield notes in "Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge," a study conducted by UCLA's Civil Rights Project. Orfield's report used federal data to highlight deepening segregation in public education by race and poverty.
About 44 percent of students in the nation's public school system are people of color, and this group will soon make up the majority of the population in the United States. Yet this racial diversity often isn't reflected from school to school. Instead, two out of every five African American and Latino youths attend schools Orfield characterizes as "intensely segregated," composed of 90 percent to 100 percent people of color.
For Latinos, the trend reflects growing residential segregation. For African Americans, the study attributes a significant part of the reversal to ending desegregation plans in public schools nationwide. Schools segregated by race and poverty tend to have much higher dropout rates, more teacher turnover and greater exposure to crime and gangs, placing students at a major disadvantage in society. The most severe segregation is in Western states, including California.
Fifty-five years after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Orfield wrote, "Segregation is fast spreading into large sectors of suburbia, and there is little or no assistance for communities wishing to resist the pressures of resegregation and ghetto creation in order to build successfully integrated schools and neighborhoods."
Source: "Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge," Gary Orfield, The Civil Rights Project, UCLA, January 2009.
3. North Carolina’s nuclear nightmare
The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina's Wake County isn't just a power-generating station. The Progress Energy facility, located in a backwoods area, bears the distinction of housing the largest radioactive waste storage pools in the country. Spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants are transported there by rail, then stored beneath circulating cold water to prevent the radioactive waste from heating.
The hidden danger, according to investigative reporter Jeffery St. Clair, is the looming threat of a pool fire. Citing a study by Brookhaven National Laboratory, St. Clair highlighted in Counterpunch the catastrophe that could ensue if a pool were to ignite. A possible 140,000 people could wind up with cancer. Contamination could stretch for thousands of square miles. And damages could reach an estimated $500 billion.
"Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly and catch fire," Robert Alvarez, a former Department of Energy advisor and Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies noted in a study about safety issues surrounding nuclear waste pools. "The fire could well spread to older fuel. The long-term contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than Chernobyl."
Shearon Harris' track record is pocked with problems requiring temporary shutdowns of the plant and malfunctions of the facility's emergency-warning system.
When a study was sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission highlighting the safety risks and recommending technological fixes to address the problem, St. Clair noted, a pro-nuclear commissioner successfully persuaded the agency to dismiss the concerns.
Source: "Pools of Fire," Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch, Aug. 9, 2008.
4. United States fails to protect against daily toxins
Two years ago, the European Union enacted a bold new environmental policy requiring close scrutiny and restriction of toxic chemicals used in everyday products. Invisible perils such as lead in lipstick, endocrine disruptors in baby toys and mercury in electronics can threaten human health. The European legislation aimed to gradually phase out these toxic materials and replace them with safer alternatives.
The story that has gone unreported by mainstream American news media is how this game-changing legislation might affect the United States, where chemical corporations use lobbying muscle to ensure comparatively lax oversight of toxic substances. As global markets shift to favor safer consumer products, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is lagging in its own scrutiny of insidious chemicals.
As investigative journalist Mark Schapiro pointed out in Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power, the EPA's tendency to behave as if it were beholden to big business could backfire in this case, placing U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage because products manufactured here will be regarded with increasing distrust.
Economics aside, the implications of loose restrictions on toxic products are chilling: just one-third of the 267 chemicals on the EU's watch list have ever been tested by the EPA, and only two are regulated under federal law. Meanwhile, researchers at UC Berkeley estimate that 42 billion pounds of chemicals enter American commerce daily, and only a fraction have undergone risk assessments. When it comes to meeting the safer, more stringent EU standard, the stakes are high—with consequences including economic impacts as well as public health.
Sources: "European Chemical Clampdown Reaches Across Atlantic," David Biello, Scientific American, Sept. 30, 2008; "How Europe's New Chemical Rules Affect U.S.," Environmental Defense Fund, Sept. 30, 2008; "U.S. Lags Behind Europe in Regulating Toxicity of Everyday Products," Mark Schapiro, Democracy Now!, Feb. 24, 2009.