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Parched manufacturing city in India brings in water by rail
By EMILY SCHMALL | Mon, July 29, 2019 09:15 EDT
JOLARPET, India (AP) — Amid the green Yelagiri hills of southern India, the train inches along the tracks, carrying what has become precious cargo: drinking water bound for Chennai, India’s parched Motor City.
Demand for water in the manufacturing and IT hub on the Bay of Bengal far outstrips supply, forcing authorities to take extreme and costly measures to serve the city’s 10 million people. And so, every day, the train sets out on a four-hour, 216-kilometer (134-mile) journey, its 50 tank cars carrying 2.5 million liters (660,000 gallons) of water drawn from a dam on the Cauvery River.
The train is classic Indian “jugaad,” the Hindi word for a makeshift solution to a complicated problem.
Executive engineer K. Raju confessed this is not the best engineering solution to Chennai’s water problem. “But this is a timely way to help and that’s all. This is not a permanent solution,” he said. Building an underground pipeline that brings in water from closer areas would be better, he said.
As with other fast-growing cities in the developing world, Chennai’s water woes were years in the making.
Chennai’s population has more than tripled in three decades, with people arriving to take jobs at pharmaceutical research and development labs, auto plants and high-tech industries. The runaway growth — combined with poor maintenance of its four reservoirs, ineffective sewage systems and, more recently, delayed monsoon rains — has left India’s sixth-largest city high and dry. Or nearly so.
Its reservoirs are empty, and it is relying on dwindling groundwater sources and two desalination plants for the vast majority of its water. Since June, the water board in Chennai has been turning off the taps for all but a couple of hours a day.
In early July, the government of Tamil Nadu state, of which Chennai is the capital, approved a crash engineering project to bring in water by rail for the next six months at a cost of about $94 million. Raju’s team had just 10 days to lay the necessary 650 meters (half-mile) of pipeline and install a pumping system to put water into rail cars formerly used to carry cooking oil.
The amount of water transported is just a tiny fraction of the 500 million liters (130 million gallons) a day that the water board delivers to its customers.
The train sets out every day at sunset, and just after midnight, it screeches into the city’s mostly deserted Villivakkam railway station, where men in hard hats and reflective vests connect blue hoses to the cars. It takes four hours for the water to be decanted into the city’s water system.
The following morning, at one of the city’s water distribution stations, Ranganathan, a longtime water truck driver in Chennai, pulls his colorfully painted vehicle underneath a big water tap, fills up his rig and begin making neighborhood deliveries. He puts in 16-hour days, with no time even to eat, he said.
“People get excited once they see our lorries,” said Ranganathan, who goes by only one name. “On days if it becomes late, people will start panicking. What to do? They are like my mother, sister who are worried due to water scarcity, so we help.”
At one drop-off point, a neighborhood of low-slung, one-room houses called Thousand Lights, K. Devi, a 41-year-old mother, said the six jugs of water she receives free every day mean that she and her family can bathe and wash clothes just once a week. Sometimes she buys extra cans of water for 35 rupees (about 50 cents) apiece.
She is happy to have the water, regardless of the distance it had to travel to reach her Chennai slum.
“They are voluntarily giving water, then why should we refuse?” she said.
This isn’t the first time water trains have rolled into Chennai. When the city experienced a severe drought in 2001, it imported water by rail from Erode township, more than 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) southwest of Chennai.
After that, the state government mandated that Chennai households install rainwater collection systems. The water board also began buying water from farmers and built two desalination plants. But the supply still fell short of ever-growing demand.

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Puerto Ricans anxious for new leader amid political crisis
By DÁNICA COTO | Mon, July 29, 2019 08:20 EDT
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The unprecedented resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor after days of massive island-wide protests has thrown the U.S. territory into a full-blown political crisis.
Less than four days before Gov. Ricardo Rosselló steps down, no one knows who will take his place. Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, his constitutional successor, said Sunday that she didn’t want the job. The next in line would be Education Secretary Eligio Hernández, a largely unknown bureaucrat with little political experience.
Rosselló’s party says it wants him to nominate a successor before he steps down, but Rosselló has said nothing about his plans, time is running out and some on the island are even talking about the need for more federal control over a territory whose finances are already overseen from Washington.
Rosselló resigned following nearly two weeks of daily protests in which hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, mounted horses and jet skis, organized a twerkathon and came up with other creative ways to demand his ouster.
On Monday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Department of Justice building to demand that Vázquez resign before becoming the island’s next governor. Under normal circumstances, Rosselló’s successor would be the territory’s secretary of state, but veteran politician Luis Rivera Marín resigned from that post on July 13 as part of the scandal that toppled the governor.
The crowd marched in a large circle, banging pots and clutching Puerto Rican flags as they yelled, “You didn’t do your job, Wanda Vázquez, go to hell!”
Among the protesters was psychologist and yoga teacher Lourdes Soler Muñiz, who also protested almost every day before Rosselló resigned.
“The people have the power. They are our employees,” she said, referring to government officials. “We’re not going to stop. I am 56 years old and I’m not growing tired. Imagine what the young people are capable of.”
Vázquez, a 59-year-old prosecutor who worked as a district attorney and was later director of the Office for Women’s Rights, does not have widespread support among Puerto Ricans. Many have criticized her for not being aggressive enough in investigating cases involving members of the party that she and Rosselló belong to, and of not prioritizing gender violence as justice secretary. She also has been accused of not pursuing the alleged mismanagement of supplies for victims of Hurricane Maria.
Facing a new wave of protests, Vázquez tweeted Sunday that she had no desire to succeed Rosselló.
“I have no interest in the governor’s office,” she wrote. “I hope the governor nominates a secretary of state before Aug. 2.”
If a secretary of state is not nominated before Rosselló resigns, Vázquez would automatically become the new governor. She would then have the power to nominate a secretary of state, or she could also reject being governor, in which case the constitution states the treasury secretary would be next in line. However, Treasury Secretary Francisco Parés is 31 years old, and the constitution dictates a governor has to be at least 35. In that case, the governorship would go to Hernández, who replaced the former education secretary, Julia Keleher, who resigned in April and was arrested on July 10 on federal corruption charges. She has pleaded not guilty.
But Hernández has not been clear on whether he would accept becoming governor.
“At this time, this public servant is focused solely and exclusively on the work of the Department of Education,” he told Radio Isla 1320 AM on Monday. A spokesman for Hernandez did not return a message seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are growing anxious about what the lack of leadership could mean for the island’s political and economic future.
“It’s very important that the government have a certain degree of stability, said Luis Rodríguez, a 36-year-old accountant, adding that all political parties should be paying attention to what’s happening. “We’re tired of the various political parties that always climb to power and have let us down a bit and have taken the island to the point where it finds itself right now.”
Héctor Luis Acevedo, a university professor and former secretary of state, said both the governor’s party and the main opposition party that he supports, the Popular Democratic Party, have weakened in recent years. He added that new leadership needs to be found soon.
“These uncertainties are dangerous in a democracy because they tend to strengthen the extremes,” he said. “This vacuum is greatly harming the island.”
Puerto Ricans until recently had celebrated that Rosselló and more than a dozen other officials had resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they mocked women and the victims of Hurricane Maria, among others, in 889 pages leaked on July 13. But now, many are concerned that the government is not moving quickly enough to restore order and leadership to an island mired in a 13-year recession as it struggles to recover from the Category 4 storm and tries to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.
Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló, a member of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, which supports statehood, said in a telephone interview that legislators are waiting on Rosselló to nominate a secretary of state, who would then become governor since Vázquez has said she is not interested in the position.
“I hope that whoever is nominated is someone who respects people, who can give the people of Puerto Rico hope and has the capacity to rule,” he said. “We cannot rush into this. There must be sanity and restraint in this process.”
Another option was recently raised by Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress. Last week, she urged U.S. President Donald Trump to appoint a federal coordinator to oversee hurricane reconstruction and ensure the proper use of federal funds in the U.S. territory, a suggestion rejected by many on an island already under the direction of a federal control board overseeing its finances and debt restructuring process.
As legislators wait for Rosselló to nominate a secretary of state, they have started debating whether to amend the constitution to allow for a vice president or lieutenant governor, among other things.
The constitution currently does not allow the government to hold early elections, noted Yanira Reyes Gil, a university professor and constitutional attorney.
“We have to rethink the constitution,” she said, adding that there are holes in the current one, including that people are not allowed to participate in choosing a new governor if the previous one resigns.
Reyes also said people are worried that the House and Senate might rush to approve a new secretary of state without sufficient vetting.
“Given the short amount of time, people have doubts that the person will undergo a strict evaluation,” she said. “We’re in a situation where the people have lost faith in the government agencies, they have lost faith in their leaders.”

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In a state with crumbling home foundations, relief arrives
By SUSAN HAIGH | Mon, July 29, 2019 09:32 EDT
VERNON, Conn. (AP) — After worrying for years about the foundations crumbling beneath their houses, hundreds of suburban homeowners in a large swath of eastern Connecticut are getting help from the state to salvage properties that had been doomed by bad batches of concrete.
The homes are being lifted, propped and held up as workers jackhammer away concrete that had deteriorated because of a natural but corrosive mineral. New foundations are poured and, after six to eight weeks of work, the houses are ready to live in once again. The process is expected to continue for years.
The feats, made possible by financial assistance from the state and a fee on homeowners’ insurance policies, are also rebuilding communities and the lives of residents, including some who considered just walking away from their houses and mortgages.
“Now we’re able to do something,” said Wendy Padula, a retiree who was originally Quote: d $300,000 to fix her crumbling foundation, which her insurance company refused to cover. The house in the Hartford suburb of Vernon, which she and her late husband bought for $200,000 in 1985, is in the early stages of being fixed thanks to a $175,000 grant.
“Early on when I got my first Quote: s, I just thought I was going to walk away from the house. There was no way I could afford to fix it,” said Padula, who wistfully recalled how she and her husband were so pleased to buy such a well-built and beautiful home in a nice neighborhood.
“Oh, my god. Who would have thought? I mean, this is a beautiful neighborhood and it just is such a shame. What a tragedy,” she said.
Often described as a “slow-moving disaster,” the problem is caused by an iron sulfide known as pyrrhotite, which causes concrete to crack and break gradually as it becomes exposed to water and oxygen. The material containing pyrrhotite has been traced to a Willington quarry used between 1983 and 2015 by a now-defunct concrete company.
This pyrrhotite problem is the first of its kind in the United States.
About 700 claims seeking assistance with foundation replacements have been filed so far this year, but Connecticut officials have said the problem could ultimately come in waves, affecting tens of thousands of homes in dozens of towns in the state and as far as southern Massachusetts.
It’s suspected that many with the problem have not yet come forward, and others don’t know they have it yet. State leaders have sought unsuccessfully to obtain federal disaster aid.
“We’re looking at a natural disaster here. A catastrophe,” said Michael Maglaras, superintendent of the private insurance company created by the Connecticut General Assembly to oversee the grant program for homeowners. “This is an insidious problem. It’s gradual. It creeps up through the system and it destroys homes and it destroys lives.”
The Connecticut Foundation Solutions Indemnity Company, which Maglaras oversees, is funded with $20 million a year for five years in state borrowing and an annual $12 fee on homeowners’ insurance policies. Eligible homeowners can receive up to $175,000, but that often doesn’t cover the whole cost.
More than 40 foundations have already been replaced this year. But it’s unclear how the needs of other affected homeowners will be addressed when the insurance company expires in 2022 and after the money is expected to run out.
Maglaras has urged state lawmakers to extend it beyond 2022. He’s also seeking more money from the state.
“Give me another $100 million … and I will put an end to the first wave of this problem,” said Maglaras, who estimates roughly 2,000 homes will need to be fixed over the next few years. But he acknowledged he “won’t be able to do anything about the second wave” of crumbling foundations, which Maglaras estimates will happen a decade from now.
Several years after the scope of the problem came to light, there has been little progress for efforts to hold anyone accountable.
A 2016 investigation determined that the risks of pyrrhotite in residential concrete were not well known when the concrete was poured, and that the now-defunct concrete company and others were not aware of the problem. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut declined a request filed by homeowners in 2017 to conduct a federal investigation into what state officials knew.
Under pressure to investigate how insurers handled homeowners’ claims, the state’s insurance commissioner, Andrew Mais, said in an interview that the department has not decided whether to look into the denial of claims.
Mais said his office is awaiting rulings expected this summer by the state supreme court that could clarify the definition of a “collapse” — an event that standard insurance policies generally cover only when they are sudden or accidental. He is working to persuade more insurance companies to donate to a fund to help homeowners pay for costs not covered by the grant.
Meanwhile, a working group created by the General Assembly in 2017 to develop a quality control plan for Connecticut quarries and to study the workforce of contractors repairing and replacing crumbling concrete foundations, has yet to meet, according to Don Childree, a contractor and one of the members.
The panel had originally faced a December deadline to report back to lawmakers, but the General Assembly voted to extend the deadline.
Childree, who first came across a crumbling foundation in South Windsor in the early 2000s, has completed over 80 replacements, many of them for homeowners who footed the entire bill themselves. He has been working seven days a week for months.
“It’s hard to keep up,” he said.
The work involves cutting back the driveway, pulling out the furnace and plumbing, then jackhammering holes into the foundation walls so steel beams can be slid underneath the home.
The house is slowly jacked up using hydraulics and workers hammer away all the concrete before the new foundation is poured.
The region’s real estate market has taken a big hit, residents say, and there is concern about the long-term economic ramifications if people do not get their homes fixed.
Looking around his Vernon neighborhood, Ken Fisher points to one home where the owners “just bailed” and it’s now a rental. Another was sold at a basement-level price.
“The neighborhood is deteriorating, one by one,” said Fisher, who lives in Padula’s neighborhood and is having his foundation replaced at the same time. “It’s just not the way we expected our lives to come to this. It’s pretty heartbreaking. Very heartbreaking.”

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Lawsuits stemming from gas explosions settled for $143M
Tue, July 30, 2019 01:45 EDT
LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) — A series of class action lawsuits stemming from the natural gas explosions in Massachusetts have been settled for $143 million, the utility blamed for the disaster and lawyers for the plaintiffs announced Monday.
The settlement is subject to the approval of a judge, according to Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, and its parent, NiSource Inc.
“Today marks another important step forward, as we continue to fulfill our commitment to residents and businesses,” NiSource President Joe Hamrock said in a statement.
The explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover on Sept. 13 killed one person, injured about 25 others, and damaged or destroyed more than 100 buildings. Many people were forced into temporary shelter, and thousands of homes and businesses went without natural gas service for weeks and even months during the winter.
“Families suffered for months in the gripping cold. Businesses shuttered, and lives were upended,” Elizabeth Graham, co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “To this day, the people most impacted by the explosions are not fully back on their feet, but we believe this settlement is the quickest and most just method to ensure that residents and businesses are made whole again.”
The explosions were blamed on an overpressurization of gas transmission lines during routine replacement. The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation.
The agreement announced Monday is separate from an $80 million settlement reached in May with the three communities to address infrastructure damage.
It is also separate from settlements with two families.
In July, Columbia settled with the family of Leonel Rondon, 18, who died when a chimney collapsed on his vehicle in the driveway of a friend’s home.
In April, the utility settled with the Figueroa family, of Lawrence. Several members of the family were injured and their home was heavily damaged. Details of the Rondon and Figueroa settlements have not been made public.
“I don’t think anything can ever be fair to a community where so many people lost family members, lost homes, lost livelihoods,” Republican Gov. Charlie Baker responded when asked Monday if he believed the settlement was a fair one.
Baker, however, added that victims of the disaster were well represented in negotiations with the utility, “and if they believe that was a deal worth signing, I’m going to side with them on that.”
NiSource has so far spent about $1 billion responding to the disaster, the company said.
Residents of the three communities will be entitled to recover compensation for disruption of their lives and property damage not previously covered, according to the attorneys. Businesses will be able to claim lost income and lost inventory.
___
This story has been corrected to show that Joe Hamrock is CEO of NiSource, not CEO of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts.

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‘Chernobyl’ miniseries sends curious tourists to Lithuania
By LIUDAS DAPKUS | Tue, July 30, 2019 05:46 EDT
VISAGINAS, Lithuania (AP) — An HBO miniseries featuring Soviet-era nuclear nightmares has sparked global interest in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and boosted tourism in Lithuania.
The Baltic country, which served as the filming location for “Chernobyl,” has become a destination of so-called atomic tourism since the program aired earlier this year.
At Ignalina nuclear power plant, Mikhail Nefedyev was staring grimly at the row of blinking green lights on a control panel when another group of curious visitors poured into his realm. The 64 year-old engineer explained to them what exactly happened when a similar reactor exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine, 33 years ago.
The Ignalina plant is of the same prototype as the one in Chernobyl. It has similar blueprints and the same water-cooled graphite-moderated reactors with a capacity of 1,500 megawatts of power. Ignalina was shut down a decade ago. Closing and decommissioning it were key conditions of Lithuania’s entry to the European Union in 2004.
In 1986, Lithuania, then part of the Soviet empire, was one of the republics affected by the nuclear disaster. Thousands were sent to clean up the mess in Chernobyl. Many of them are dead.
Today, the nuclear disaster is helping Lithuania grow as a tourist destination.
“Chernobyl,” a highly-rated miniseries, continues to send curious watchers to the filming locations in the capital Vilnius and at Ignalina, where glowing uranium rods cool in concrete pools. The plant, which is still open for tourists, drew 2,240 visitors in 2018. By July, 1,630 had visited the plant. And demand is growing, plant officials said.
“They have made a good movie, I guess. But what happened long ago does not bother us now. I think looking backward is not good,” Nefedyev said, after explaining how the RBMK-type reactor blew up.
Tourists who come to this Baltic coastal country of 3 million to see the HBO filming locations first visit the KGB museum in downtown Vilnius where interrogation scenes were shot. They are taken to a Soviet-era district of gray condos built in the mid-1980s that look somewhat like Pripyat, a nuclear city that served the Chernobyl plant.
“People come to see these places that we never used to promote. This is very new and unusual to see them not in the Old Town taking photos of Baroque churches, but sporting selfies here,” said Inga Romanovskiene, general manager at Go Vilnius agency.
Already a popular movie-making destination, Lithuania has benefited economically from the HBO miniseries. The amount of foreign capital spent on filming reached 45.5 million euros ($50.6 million) last year.
After locations in Vilnius, atomic tourists may opt to travel 160 kilometers (100 miles) north and join a three-hour tour of the nuclear plant. They are given dosimeters, plastic helmets, white clothes and shoes before venturing through a maze of long, poorly lit corridors, reactor halls, turbine hangars and the control center with the red button which was pushed just before the explosion. Cellphones, cameras, eating, drinking and smoking are strictly off limits.
The plant tour costs 67 euros (75 dollars) per person and tickets are sold until Christmas, said Natalija Survila, spokeswoman for Ignalina power plant.
Lynn Adams, a 49-year-old psychotherapist, came from the United Kingdom to see the whole thing with her own eyes.
“It feels like you are stepping back into one of the scenes actually. It’s very, very authentic. And I remember seeing about Chernobyl on the news, but I’m so much more interested in what happened and the events having seen the drama series. So I think it has kind of ignited an interest that I wasn’t aware of at the time,” Adams said after the visit to a Soviet-era district, used by HBO as a filming location for Pripyat.
Antanas Turcinas was among those sent to Chernobyl weeks after the disaster. He hopes the buzz from the miniseries leads to better care for survivors.
“This movie has brought back old memories. Emotions are very strong, because in 1986 we did not understand what we faced. I am happy to be still alive,” he said.

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