Daily Archives: July 31, 2010

BP’s evaporating oil slick leaves America without a villain

With the gush from the BP oil spill plugged for the past two weeks, experts are beginning to question whether it can really be called an environmental disaster at all, writes Alex Spillius.

Nature is taking its course, aided by a naval-size flotilla of skimming boats and some powerful chemical dispersants.

Telegraph | Jul 31, 2010

Alex Spillius – American Way

Published: So, the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is disappearing much more quickly than expected.

The sea’s warm surface and oil-munching bacteria have dissipated the slick to such an extent that a planeload of journalists had to fly for an hour before their pilot could find a patch of oil. His relief, according to one reporter on board, was comparable to the anxious captain of a tourist boat spotting a distant pod of dolphins.

It turns out that the playful sea mammals, like other creatures, suffered much less damage than was forecast. A grand total of three dead dolphins covered in oil have been recovered by wildlife rescue teams. The spill has so far killed less than one per cent of the number of birds claimed by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

With the gush plugged for the past two weeks, experts are beginning to question whether the BP spill can really be called an environmental disaster at all.

Doubts remain about the long-term underwater affects of the oil on the ecosystem, but the greatest tragedy remains the 11 lives lost when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, causing the well to rupture.

On Friday, the company’s new chief executive Bob Dudley announced that the clean-up operation could now begin to be scaled back. It was one of the American’s first public utterances since replacing Tony Hayward as chief executive.

In an earlier appearance before BP employees in Britain, Dudley praised his predecessor for having the decency to stand down “just when things are starting to go right”.

It was not something Dudley would dare to say in the United States, where Hayward, as he acknowledged last week, remains a villain.

There are understandable reasons for this.

His “I want my life back” remark was callous in its carelessness.

You also don’t compare the biggest oil leak in US history to a “drop in the ocean”, even though that has turned out to be more or less the case, when your company is responsible for dumping 60,000 gallons a day into the sea, and when it has probably been economical with the truth about the size of the outflow.

But Hayward’s pillorying revealed how the well-spoken scoundrel remains a latent British stereotype, one that is connected to the “don’t-forget-we-kicked-your-butts-in-1776” smirk that can easily greet a British visitor on July 4.

It was also a reminder that the primary purpose of a scapegoat is to deflect blame. Amid the anger at BP, there were very few in government, the environmental movement or the media prepared to acknowledge that the despoliation of the Gulf and of the Louisiana coast has been going on for decades.

Long, long ago the state – and its people and its elected representatives – embraced oil and all its hazards. Development of the industry was rampant, corrupt, poorly regulated and carried out with little regard to the delicate marshlands that everyone was so worried about once the BP well burst open.

The thirst for oil, and the jobs and revenues it brought, led to the construction of 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms. Thousands of miles of pipeline and a complex of roads and canals contributed to the disappearance of more than 2,000 square miles of Louisiana coastline over the past century. Teams assessing the damage caused by BP to the wetlands found 350 acres of oily marshes, but the state was already losing many times that amount every year.

As the Washington Post’s energy correspondent put it, Louisiana had become a “Cajun sheikhdom”, with over-dependency on one commodity leading to underdevelopment in many areas.

That reliance explained why the major issue for locals during the spill was not the nationality of the BP’s CEO. They cared about prompt payment of compensation – and there are few complaints heard about that these days – and President Barack Obama’s moratorium on deep-water drilling, which was regarded as a mass job-deprivation programme.

The vilification of Hayward was a Washington affair and the onus is now on Washington to craft an energy policy that will exploit natural resources while offering better care for local environments and requiring stricter adherence to safety standards from the industry.

BP, having committed a colossal and tragic error, seems to be doing its part. It is now up to America’s politicians to do theirs.


Flu jab linked to fits in under fives: officials

Children under five are only routinely vaccinated against seasonal flu if they are in designated ‘risk groups’ because they have chronic asthma Photo: ALAMY

GPs have been told not to use a particular flu jab on 110,000 children under five after it was linked with a tenfold increase in fits, it can be revealed.

Telegraph | Jul 31, 2010

By Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor

Doctors should stock alternative vaccines for under fives who are due to have the seasonal flu vaccine this winter, a letter from the head of immunisation at the Department of Health has said.

The action is being taken as rate of convulsions caused by high fever among children in Australia given the jab was ten times higher than normal.

Up to one in 100 children given the jab, made in Australia by CSL and marketed in the UK by Pfizer, suffered febrile convulsions in the following hours and days.

It is not known what is causing the problem and no other flu vaccines have been linked to an increased risk of fits. Adults given the vaccine do not appear to have been affected.

Children under five are only routinely vaccinated against seasonal flu if they are in designated ‘risk groups’ because they have chronic asthma, have been admitted to hospital with a respiratory infection previously or have other long-term conditions which means they would be particularly badly affected if they caught flu.

Seasonal flu vaccines contain three strains which have been identified by the World Health Organisation as the most common in circulation that year. This year the vaccines contain the pandemic strain H1N1.

The letter to all GPs from Prof David Salisbury, said: “Epidemiological information from Australia indicates that there has been a higher than expected increase in febrile convulsions in children related to the use of Fluvax (manufactured by CSL).

“This is the same product that will be marketed in the UK by Pfizer as Enzira and generic influenza vaccine for the 2010/11 influenza vaccination season.

“Evidence from Australia suggests a rate of febrile convulsions of about one per 100 for children who were vaccinated with Fluvax. This increased risk appears to be a product specific reaction and evidence from Australia of vaccination with other products has so far not indicated a similar level of risk.

“It is important that children over six months of age who are in clinical risk groups receive influenza vaccination. Given the availability of other influenza vaccine products, you should avoid offering Enzira or CSL Biotherapies generic influenza vaccine marketed by Pfizer to children aged under five years.”

He added that the medicines regulator will be monitoring the situation.

Febrile convulsions affect around one in 20 children and are normally caused by an infection. The body reacts to the high fever with the child losing consciousness and their legs and arms jerk. They may go pale or turn blue briefly and after a few minutes the shaking normally stops.

The attacks can be very frightening for parents and children are usually admitted to hospital after the first convulsion to establish the cause. Some children are particularly prone to them but they are not normally dangerous.

In Australia, which is in its winter, stopped vaccinating all children under five when the increased rate of convulsions was found. It has since restarted vaccinating with other products.

A spokesman for Pfizer said: “The cause of the unexpected increased frequency of febrile convulsions remains unknown and investigations continue. Pfizer and CSL are working closely with regulatory authorities, health agencies and distribution partners to determine the most appropriate way to provide influenza vaccine for the Northern Hemisphere 2010/2011 influenza season.

“While, Pfizer supports the current precautionary approach to the use of our influenza vaccine in children under five years of age, it should be noted that the vast majority of patients in the UK receiving the influenza vaccine are adults, and febrile convulsions are not seen in the adult population.

“In addition, there is no evidence that the vaccine poses any increased risks to other groups, including pregnant women and those aged over 65.

“Pfizer and CSL are committed to ensuring the quality and safety our products. Pfizer is in ongoing dialogue with the Department of Health to help ensure the successful implementation of the 2010/11 Flu immunisation programme.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “As part of the Australian flu vaccination programme, a number of children were given a brand of flu vaccine known as Enzira (Fluvax in Australia). A small proportion of these children, aged under 5, had fits after they had this vaccine.

“The vaccine is also marketed in the UK as CSL Biotherapies generic influenza vaccine. It contains three strains of the flu virus that experts predict are most likely to be around this winter including swine flu (H1N1).

“We are asking GPs in the UK to avoid offering this vaccine to the under 5s in the coming flu season, there are several other vaccines available that are suitable for this age group. There is currently no indication that the vaccine poses any increased risks to other groups.

“Having the flu jab remains the best protection against flu and we recommend that people get vaccinated when they’re offered it in the autumn.”

Chelsea Clinton prepares for America’s multi-million dollar ‘royal’ wedding

When 500 guests arrive at a 50-acre estate by the Hudson River on Saturday afternoon they will be asked to surrender their mobile phones and any recording devices before being subjected to security checks suitable for an international summit.

The total cost to Bill and Hillary Clinton has been estimated at $2 million to $3 million, a fraction of their combined wealth.

Telegraph | Jul 30, 2010

By Alex Spillius in Washington

But the price paid for any loss of dignity is a coveted invitation to America’s wedding of the year, between Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, an investment banker.

“This is the closest we get to a royal wedding,” said a former White House official.

“She’s not the Prince of Wales, there isn’t quite the same expectation that you will be a public person from birth, but her parents are so famous she can’t avoid this being quite a fuss.”

Hillary Clinton has nonetheless called the day a “family wedding”. That of course depends on the family.

When the father of the bride is a former president and her mother the current US Secretary of State, that means a no-fly zone being enforced over the venue from 3pm Saturday to 3am on Sunday morning. Police will also patrol the river to deter enterprising paparazzi or terrorists, or both.

The total cost to Bill and Hillary Clinton has been estimated at $2 million to $3 million, a fraction of their combined wealth.

One of the biggest chunks is going toward an air-conditioned marquee with glass walls that was still being erected yesterday in the grounds of Astor Courts in Rhinebeck, a picturesque village two hours’ drive north of Manhattan.

The food bill is expected to come in at $125,000, in part because the non-meat eating bride has insisted on vegan and vegetarian options, though there will be a main course of organic grass-fed beef for those with more hearty appetites such as her father. The dessert wine has been supplied by the serendipitously named Clinton Vineyards.

The former president, who has promised to do his best not to cry, will give away his only child who will be dressed by Vera Wang, costing an estimated $25,000. It will of course only be used once, unlike the $15,000 porcelain “porta-potties” that guests will be grateful for as they party the night away to a wedding band whose bill is expected to reach $40,000.

The playlist devised by the young couple seems designed to please all ages and is said to include such hits as Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”.

That however is one of Chelsea’s few concessions to her parents, who may be the best connected couple in the world but were told from the outset that her big day was not to be turned into a political parade.

Miss Clinton, now 30, has always guarded her privacy tenaciously. She has been working at a New York hedge fund and recently completed a postgraduate degree in public health, which may be a precursor to joining her father’s global health charity.

She met Mr Mezvinsky, 32, the son of two former Democratic congressmen, in her late teens but only became romantically involved a few years ago.

The occasion will have the grandeur of a state wedding but in keeping with the wishes of the bride, the details, which only started to seep out in the past few days, have been guarded like state secrets.

“I am under very strict orders not to talk about it,” said Mrs Clinton recently. “The people coming are her friends and people who have been meaningful in her life, as it should be.”

Those will naturally include a number of Hollywood figures and high profile politicians from around the world.

But some expected big names will not be there, including Oprah Winfrey, who was not invited, and President Barack Obama, who said he appreciated the focus on Chelsea and her friends.

“It would be tough enough having one president at a wedding,” he said. “You don’t want two.”

Medvedev gives KGB successor agency Soviet-style repressive powers

Medvedev widens powers of KGB successor agency

AP | Jul 29, 2010

By MANSUR MIROVALEV

MOSCOW — Russia has broadened the authority of the Federal Security Service, the KGB’s main successor agency, giving it Soviet-style repressive powers in a move critics say could be used to stifle protests and intimidate government opponents.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law Thursday allowing the agency, known by its initials FSB, to issue warnings or detain people suspected of preparing to commit crimes against Russia’s security — which could include participating in anti-government rallies. Perpetrators face fines or up to 15 days detention.

Like many past restrictions, the law was described as part of an effort to combat extremism. The bill, submitted to Russian lawmakers in April, followed twin subway bombings in Moscow that killed 40 people and reflected the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with critical media coverage of its anti-terrorism efforts.

A senior lawmaker said the law protects people from abuse by law enforcement officers.

“Officers of law enforcement agencies have long talked about the necessity of switching from investigating crimes to their prevention,” Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin-connected head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, said in a statement. “The amendments do not turn FSB into a new edition of once-almighty KGB but protect Russian citizens from outrages by men in uniform.”

Some of the law’s articles, including ones that toughen control over media for “extremist statements” and allow FSB to publish warnings in the press, were removed or toned down following severe criticism from opposition and even Kremlin loyalists.

However, a lawmaker with the Communist party that remains the largest opposition force in Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament, said the amendments did not change the law’s repressive character.

“Despite all the promises to correct the most odious articles, by the second reading nothing has been changed in the text,” Viktor Ilykhin told The Associated Press.

A Kremlin loyalist from a nationalist party praised the law for its “preventative measures.”

“This is not a repressive law,” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party, told Gazeta.ru online daily. “We’re only talking about preventive measures.”

Kremlin critics say, however, that the new measures could be used to violate the rights of opposition, and its obscure wording would leave the legislation open to interpretation.

“It’s an ugly law with obscure formulas,” independent political analyst Yulia Latynina told AP. “In case a drunken FSB officer is shooting at you, and there have been many such cases, you might end up getting jailed for 15 days for merely trying to escape.”

The opposition has accused the Kremlin of turning Russia into a Soviet-style police state, and many Russians say they have experienced or fear abuse at the hands of FSB officers. Government critics say corruption among the FSB and other agencies stifles business activity and stunts the economy.

Some rights activists say the law simply legalizes practices FSB officers have been using for years.

“I don’t think it adds anything to what FSB has been doing without any laws,” former Soviet dissident and head of the Moscow Helsinki group Lyudmila Alexeyeva told AP. “But it’s very sad when a law approves the outrage of such a dangerous service as FSB.”

The legislation continues a trend under former President Vladimir Putin, blamed by the opposition and the West for rolling back Russia’s democratic reforms of the 1990s. The former KGB officer and FSB head allowed the security services to regain power and influence at the expense of Russia’s democratic institutions.

Putin is now prime minister, and many see his intolerance of dissent as influencing Medvedev, his hand-picked successor.

The bill has raised doubts about Medvedev’s commitment to promoting full-fledged democracy and freedom of expression. Medvedev often has spoken of instituting judicial and police reforms, and has taken a less hard line on many issues than Putin.

Medvedev, who initiated the bill, angrily retorted to criticism. He said earlier this month that “each country has the right to perfect its legislation.”