Friday, April 23, 2010

Oil Rig Blast Prompts Environmental Concerns

As the Coast Guard searched for 11 crew members missing after a drilling rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, authorities turned their focus to controlling an oil spill that could threaten the fragile ecosystem of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts.

The Deepwater Horizon had burned violently for nearly two days until it sank Thursday morning. The fire's out, and officials had initially feared as much as 336,000 gallons of crude oil a day could be rising from the sea floor 5,000 feet below.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said Friday morning that no oil appeared to be leaking from the well head at the ocean floor, nor was any leaking at the water's surface. However, Landry said crews were closely monitoring the rig for any more crude that might spill out.

The oil currently being contained was residual from the explosion and sinking.

"If it gets landward, it could be a disaster in the making," said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director for the environmental group Gulf Restoration Network.

BP PLC, which leased the rig and took the lead in the cleanup, said Friday it has "activated an extensive oil spill response," including using remotely operated vehicles to assess the subsea well and 32 vessels to mop up the spill.

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said the company will do "everything in our power to contain this oil spill and resolve the situation as rapidly, safely and effectively as possible." He says the company can call on more resources if needed.

Ed Overton, an LSU environmental sciences professor, said he expects some of the light crude oil to evaporate while much of it turns into a pasty mess called a "chocolate mousse" that ultimately breaks apart into "tar balls," small chunks of oily residue that can wash ashore.

Report: Health Care To Cover More, Cost More

Obama & Company's health care overhaul law is getting a mixed verdict in the first comprehensive look by neutral experts: More Americans will be covered, but costs are also going up.

Economic experts at the Health and Human Services Department concluded in a report issued Thursday that the health care remake will achieve Obama's aim of expanding health insurance - adding 34 million to the coverage rolls.

But the analysis also found that the law falls short of the president's twin goal of controlling runaway costs, raising projected spending by about 1 percent over 10 years. That increase could get bigger, since Medicare cuts in the law may be unrealistic and unsustainable, the report warned.

It's a worrisome assessment for Democrats. In particular, concerns about Medicare could become a major political liability in the midterm elections. The report projected that Medicare cuts could drive about 15 percent of hospitals and other institutional providers into the red, "possibly jeopardizing access" to care for seniors.

The report from Medicare's Office of the Actuary carried a disclaimer saying it does not represent the official position of the Obama administration. White House officials have repeatedly complained that such analyses have been too pessimistic and lowball the law's potential to achieve savings.

The report acknowledged that some of the cost-control measures in the bill -- Medicare cuts, a tax on high-cost insurance and a commission to seek ongoing Medicare savings - could help reduce the rate of cost increases beyond 2020. But it held out little hope for progress in the first decade.

The U.S. spends $2.5 trillion a year on health care, far more per person than any other developed nation, and for results that aren't clearly better when compared to more frugal countries. At the outset of the health care debate last year, Obama held out the hope that by bending the cost curve down, the U.S. could cover all its citizens for about what the nation would spend absent any changes.

The report found that the president's law missed the mark, although not by much. The overhaul will increase national health care spending by $311 billion from 2010-2019, or nine-tenths of 1 percent. To put that in perspective, total health care spending during the decade is estimated to surpass $35 trillion.

In addition to flagging provider cuts as potentially unsustainable, the report projected that reductions in payments to private Medicare Advantage plans would trigger an exodus from the popular alternative. Enrollment would plummet by about 50 percent. Seniors leaving the private plans would still have health insurance under traditional Medicare, but many might face higher out-of-pocket costs.

In another flashing yellow light, the report warned that a new voluntary long-term care insurance program created under the law faces "a very serious risk" of insolvency.

SEC Staffers Surfed Porn As Economy Tanked

Republicans are stepping up their criticism of the Securities and Exchange Commission following reports that senior agency staffers spent hours surfing pornographic websites on government-issued computers while they were supposed to be policing the nation's financial system.

California Rep. Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said it was "disturbing that high-ranking officials within the SEC were spending more time looking at porn than taking action to help stave off the events that put our nation's economy on the brink of collapse."

He said in a statement Thursday that SEC officials "were preoccupied with other distractions" when they should have been overseeing the growing problems in the financial system.

The SEC's inspector general conducted 33 probes of employees looking at explicit images in the past five years, according to a memo.

The memo says 31 of those probes occurred in the 2 1/2 years since the financial system teetered and nearly crashed.

The staffers' behavior violated government-wide ethics rules, it says.

The memo provides fresh ammunition for Republicans who suspect the timing of the SEC's lawsuit last week against Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs Group Inc. News of the suit came as the Senate prepared to take up a sweeping overhaul of the rules governing banks and other financial companies.

Teacher On Tour To Promote Dead Poets Day

A former Maine schoolteacher who founded the Dead Poets Society of America and traveled 15,000 miles to document the graves of poets has a new mission - to create a Dead Poets Remembrance Day on Oct. 7, the date master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe died.

Amateur poet Walter Skold of Freeport is launching his new endeavor Friday, beginning another 22-state tour of the graves of fallen bards. He's enlisted 13 state poets laureate to help drum up support.

His "Dead Poets Grand Tour 2010" kicks off on what's believed to be the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth in 1564 with a poetry reading at Portland's Eastern Cemetery, the burial place of British and American sea captains cited in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "My Lost Youth."

US Coast Guard; Gulf Restoration Network; LSU; Reuters; Wall Street Journal; Office of the Actuary; AP; New York Daily News.

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