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Number 576 • October 20, 2011 | Past Issues

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

1) Anthrax Redux: Science, Circumstance, and Political Will

This century’s most notorious bioterrorism case might not be clinched as tightly as FBI investigators would have us think. There's renewed interest in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened others in the wake of two reports—one by scientists and another by a collaboration of media outlets. One implication of the reports is that the true culprit in the attacks might still be free.

The reports take aim at a lengthy FBI investigation that eventually zeroed in on Bruce Ivins, a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases microbiologist. The FBI named him the lone suspect responsible for mailing letters containing anthrax spores to U.S. senators and several media outlets. Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008, was never indicted, but the FBI maintained his guilt and closed the case last year.

That conclusion has been questioned by some in the scientific community, including a National Academy of Sciences committee and, most recently, the authors of a report posted Saturday in the Journal of Bioterrorism and Biodefense.

“Critical scientific questions, some of which have already been indicated in this paper, must be answered before the anthrax case can be laid to rest,” the authors write. “That will require scientific expertise and political neutrality, ideally with full access to all that the FBI knows.… Indeed, further scientific investigation may be the only way to bring the facts of the case to light.”

The report’s authors—anthrax expert Martin Hugh-Jones, biologist Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, and chemist Stuart Jacobsen—say their analysis casts enough doubts on the FBI case to reopen the investigation, according to the New York Times. Among those doubts is skepticism that Ivins could or would have produced anthrax spores with a “tin-silicon coating” like that found on the mailed spores.

“It indicates a very special processing, and expertise,” Hugh-Jones told the Times, adding that the process was “far more sophisticated than needed.”

Other scientists and the FBI disagree. They say the authors, who have been outspoken critics of the investigation, aren’t allowing for the fact that the tin and silicon could just as easily be contaminants from lab containers, water, or disinfectants.

“Speculation regarding certain characteristics of the spores is just that—speculation,” Justice Department Spokesman Dean Boyd told the Times. “We stand by our conclusion.”
  
Hugh-Jones and colleagues focused on the chemical signature of the spores, but the FBI’s scientific evidence against Ivins is mainly genetic tests linking the mailed anthrax to anthrax Ivins created in a flask labeled RMR-1029. While a genetic link isn’t in dispute, the National Academy of Sciences report states that the parentage of the spores didn’t conclusively tie Ivins to the mailings. Paul Keim, a geneticist who examined some of the anthrax samples for the FBI, ascribed the inconclusiveness of the investigation to Ivins' premature death.

“The results were consistent with RMR-1029 being the source,” he told the Los Angeles Times. If the case had gone to court, he said, “I believe that additional work would have been done to make the linkage stronger.”

Science notwithstanding, other aspects of the FBI case have come into question, thanks to an exhaustive examination by ProPublica, PBS Frontline, and McClatchy. The joint project presents evidence poking holes in several FBI opinions, including that Ivins’ work hours before the anthrax mailings was suspicious, that the pending demise of the anthrax vaccination program gave him motive, and that Ivins—who initially worked with the FBI to solve the case—mislead investigators with altered samples.

The Government Accountability Office is also reviewing the FBI case, but many of those unconvinced of Ivins’ guilt are equally unconvinced that the case will be reopened. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, a vocal critic of the investigation, told ProPublica that even Congress was no match for the will of the FBI.

“I would question my capability of raising enough heat [to reopen the case] when you're up against the FBI,” he said. “And I've been up against the FBI.”

The matter could be farther reaching than a little bureaucratic recalcitrance. It could, as one genetics consultant on the case points out, be an instance of wishful thinking meets willing ignorance—with the end result of compromising public safety.

“For an awful lot of people, there is a desire to really want to say that yes, Ivins was the perpetrator. This case can reasonably be closed,” Claire Fraser-Liggett is quoted as saying in the collaborative piece. “But I think part of what's driving that is the fact that, if he wasn't the perpetrator, then it means that person is still out there.”

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2) Nonchalance in New Zealand: Officials Miss the Boat on Collecting Cleanup Levies

New Zealanders are notably laid back, but their government's relaxed attitude toward financing oil cleanup might be a bit overboard.

As the stricken container vessel Rena continues to leak oil and shipping containers into the ocean near Astrolabe Reef, the unhurried manner in which New Zealand transportation officials are considering oil spill response fund changes is drawing attention.

Long before the Rena ran aground, officials have been nattering over what information on fee levy increases should be presented to the public, according to a BusinessDesk article reprinted by Television New Zealand. The holdup has lasted so long that the oil industry—who would make increased contributions to the oil spill response fund—has taken to periodically haranguing the ministers.

“Indeed, I wrote to Minister Joyce in the middle of last year trying to get some action on the levy review because it was taking so slow,” John Pfahlert, of the oil and gas advocacy group Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand, is quoted as saying.

The unusual attitude (at least from a U.S. viewpoint) stems from the industry wanting to step up to the greater threats posed by offshore drilling. The increased levies would provide a 30 percent increase in total oil and shipping industry funding for oil spill pollution management, with an additional 30 percent increase in three years.

“The proposed methodology would have seen our share go from [NZ]$10,000 or so per offshore facility to over [NZ]$200,000,” he told BusinessDesk. “Industry supported that approach [because it accepted that floating production, storage, and offloading units] posed a greater risk to the environment.”

Even without the increased risk, lingering over levy increases is probably a bad idea. While levies for the fund—which was rarely tapped for pollution response—were lowered in the past decade because of a surplus of cash, the fund now spends about NZ$1 million more per year than it makes, according to a February review of New Zealand’s Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Capability.

Similarly, transport ministers have missed the opportunity to sign a “vital protocol to an international convention on oil clean-up cost-sharing that would have doubled the amount New Zealand could demand from ships that caused oil pollution,” according to BusinessDesk. (Although the protocol isn’t named, most likely it’s the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds supplementary fund. New Zealand is a member of the primary fund, but hasn’t opted into supplementary membership.) The past two Ministers of Transport weren’t told about the protocol, according to the article.

Miscommunication and laid-back timelines aside, the Rena's grounding is likely to change things for the ministry. As the spill's effects spur protests against offshore drilling, and pictures of penguins that need sweaters grab heartstrings, officials will need to move to a different understanding of oil spill readiness.

"It's always been understood the government would write the cheque for the clean-up and seek payment from the owners," Pfahlert told BusinessDesk. “It was not well understood that no country in the world planned to be fully equipped for worst case scenarios.”

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3) Trashing Regulations: House Moves from Clean Coal to Clean Ash

Curbside pickup may not be available yet, but legislation passed Friday by the U.S. House would make disposing of toxic coal ash just about as easy as taking out your household trash.

While the Senate is unlikely to pass H.R. 2273, the bill would defeat U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation of coal ash by treating it as municipal waste, and therefore controlled by individual state standards. That means in many states coal ash would only need to be put in landfills that are lined to protect groundwater, monitored for water contamination, and controlled for dust, according to the Washington Post.

The preemptive legislation comes as the EPA is considering stricter regulations in the wake of the December 2008 coal ash spill which dumped more than 1 billion gallons of fly and bottom ash over 300 acres in Kingston, Tennessee. Regardless of that tragedy, many lawmakers in favor of the bill—which passed 267-144—see the loosened standards as an economic necessity.

“The results of EPA’s regulations would have been devastating on the effects of jobs, higher utility rates at home, and cripple a very successful emerging biproducts industry,” the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment and economy panel, John Shimkus (R-Ill.), told the Post.

Supporters of the bill also pointed out that the EPA can step in whenever states don’t want to or there’s a violation of the Clean Water Act. Still, environmental groups are incensed by the bill, which they say could ultimately lead to higher levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, antimony, and thallium in the groundwater, according to a Greenwire article.

“It is true that the bill requires monitoring and potential corrective action at these sites if they eventually exceed the drinking water standards in effect today,” Environmental Integrity Project Director Eric Schaeffer told Greenwire. “But that's closing the barn door after the horse is out and invites industry to design to a less stringent standard in the first place, gambling that contaminants don't materialize or aren't picked up by monitoring.”

That’s far from a safe bet if the Tennessee Valley Authority's actions in the 2008 spill are any indication. The authority—a federal agency that operates 11 coal burning power plants in Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky—has a long history of engineering and safety concerns and issues with transparency and accountability, according to multiple reports that surfaced after the spill.

The White House, which opposes the bill, pointed to the management of the Tennessee spill as a “stark reminder of the need for safe disposal and management of coal ash,” in a statement issued October 12.

“[The legislation] is insufficient to address the risks associated with coal ash disposal and management,” according to the statement, “and undermines the Federal government’s ability to ensure that requirements for management and disposal of coal combustion residuals are protective of human health and the environment.”

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4)Don’t Believe in Climate Change? Your Wallet Will

Although the reality of climate change and its cascading effects are undisputed by many, some holdouts still disagree with the science, the human causation, or the ultimate severity of its impacts. But there is one place where we’re all about to find common ground on climate issues—our pocket books.

For some naysayers, the cost of cosseting our changing climate has been a block to believing. Taking the steps necessary to cut carbon emissions, invest in green jobs and infrastructure, or otherwise delay rising temperatures was simply too expensive. Now, there's an indication that we can’t afford not to.

That idea was driven home Wednesday, when a group of 285 investors beseeched governments to get their climate acts together before December's UN climate talks , according to an Associated Press report.

The multinational network of investors, which represents more than $20 trillion in assets, said keeping temperatures low was key to the global economy and that it would take legally enforceable carbon limits to stimulate the investment needed to do that, according to the AP article.

“Governments that act aggressively to enact strong, long-term climate and energy policy will reap the biggest rewards,” Mindy Lubbers, director of the U.S.-based Investor Network on Climate Risk told the AP. “They will drive the innovation, attract investment and create jobs.”

Along with the plea, the investors issued the Investment-Grade Climate Change Policy Report, which was created by the INCR’s parent group, the nonprofit Ceres. The report includes case studies and suggests incentives that would compensate clean energy investors for increased risk and the cost of establishing new technology, according to an INCR statement. The emphasis on long-term stability is key, the group said.

While the investment group represents large sums of money, the impact of inaction won’t be limited to the heavy hitters, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres pointed out in the statement.

“This is the only way to guarantee the long-term sustainability and security of the world economic system, and the stability of returns from global investment,” she stated, “a major part of which is directly linked to the pensions and life insurance of ordinary people around the world.”

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5) Call Outs: Calls for Papers, Abstracts, Proposals, and More

Call for Abstracts
Public Health Law Research Annual Meeting
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Deadline: November 15, 2011
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Public Health Law Research program is accepting abstracts for presentation at its annual meeting to be held January 18-20 in New Orleans. Abstracts should examine how legal mechanisms can promote public health and focus on communicable disease, non-communicable disease, and injury prevention. See the abstract guidelines for eligibility and submission requirements.

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Call for Abstracts
Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference
Australian Institute of Emergency Services and others
Deadline: November 30, 2011
Abstracts are now being accepted for presentation at the Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference to be held April 16-18 in Brisbane, Australia. Emergency managers, researchers, aid workers, and other disaster-related professionals are invited to submit an abstract of less than 300 words related to the conference theme. Abstracts will be published in the conference handbook and online.

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Call for Proposals
Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Fellowship Program
National Science Foundation
Deadline: December 5, 2011
The National Science Foundation is accepting proposals for participation in its Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Fellowship program. Applicants must have been awarded a doctoral degree within four years of the award start date and propose interdisciplinary research that strongly advances sustainability. For full eligibility, program information, and a list of frequently asked questions, visit the fellowship Web site.

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6) Some New Web Resources

[Below are some new or updated Internet resources we have discovered. For an extensive list of useful Web sites dealing with hazards, see www.colorado.edu/hazards/resources/.]

Local Mitigation Plan Review Guide
An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but not if executed poorly. That’s why the Federal Emergency Management Agency has just issued this guide to help state and federal officials better assess local mitigation plans. The guide is designed to make sure plans are evaluated consistently and meet Stafford Act requirements. Principles and procedures for conducting reviews, a regulation checklist, and a review tool are included.

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ROVER
Assessing earthquake vulnerability doesn’t have to be a dog’s life, thanks to ROVER, a new software tool developed for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. ROVER, or Rapid Observation of Vulnerability and Estimation of Risk, can work either before or after an earthquake to compile seismic information on risky areas. Geolocation and mapping, syncing of pre- and post-quake data, remote screening, and a HAZUS-MH plug-in are among the many features offered by the free software.

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SkyTruth Environmental Incident Alerts
When it comes to tracking the scores of environmental incidents taking place around the globe, SkyTruth aims to be your eye in the sky. From ammonia leaks to oil spills, the nonprofit environmental group sifts information from a number of sources (including their own investigations) and delivers the who, what, and where of each recent incident to you in map form. The newly launched site is limited to U.S. incidents, but promises to go global soon.

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NOAA’s Digital Coast
Coastal management is a lot less complicated thanks to this constantly evolving Web site offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center. With data, tools, and training contributed by a wide range of partners, Digital Coast packs a whole lot of coastal knowledge in a simple, easy-to-navigate Web site. Everybody from planners to neighborhood organizations should stop by and save their coast today.

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National Weather Service Modernization and Associated Restructuring: A Retrospective Assessment
All those bureaucracies struggling to achieve 21st Century momentum can take heart—the National Weather Service is here to tell you it can be done. This National Academies report details the decade-long, $4.5 billion effort that took the NWS from antiquated to relatively avant-garde, including masteries and missteps along the way. Findings include how technology improvements impeded the process but resulted in better forecasting, easier-to-use products, and more robust service overall.

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iDisaster 2.0
This blog is a must for anyone who regularly ponders the juncture of social media and emergency management. Whether your scratching your head about how to move your organization forward or simply pondering the paradigm shiftiness of it all, the carefully considered and well-supported entries by lead blogger Kim Stephens provide insight while reminding us were all navigating this uncharted territory together.

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7) Conferences, Training, and Events

[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at www.colorado.edu/hazards/resources/conferences.html.]

October 28-31, 2011
EMS Leadership Summit
International Association of Emergency Medical Services Chiefs
Washington, D.C.
Cost and Registration: $495, open until filled
This annual conference for mid-level and senior leaders in emergency medical services will look at how elected officials view EMS and how EMS chiefs can improve interactions at the local, state, and federal levels. Topics include political engagement and advocacy, EMS networking, evolving ambulance standards, and federal EMS leadership.

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October 31 to November 2, 2011
National Symposium on Homeland Security and Defense
National Homeland Defense Foundation
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Cost and Registration: $600, open until filled
This conference will allow senior homeland security professionals to share experiences, opinions, and expertise. Topics include private sector business opportunities in homeland security and defense, the effect of shifting borders on U.S. security and commerce, shared boundaries and challenges in the Arctic, and the evolving responsibilities of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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November 11-17, 2011
IAEM Annual Conference
International Association of Emergency Managers
Las Vegas, Nevada
Cost and Registration: $595, open until filled
This conference discusses current trends in emergency management and homeland security. Topics include mutual aid agreements under FEMA’s Public Assistance Program, public engagement in emergency preparedness, the role of amateur radio in emergency management, and emergency sheltering for people with functional needs. Optional Emergency Management Accreditation Program training is available after the conference.

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November 15-16, 2011
Public Health and Medical Disaster Response in Action: The Joplin Story
Center for Preparedness Education
Omaha, Nebraska
Registration: $150, closes November 8
This conference will highlight the stories and lessons learned by medical and public health personnel who responded to the catastrophic tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, earlier this year. Topics include long-term care, home healthcare, disaster medical assistance teams, and post-disaster safety in healthcare facilities.

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November 16-17, 2011
Toronto Emergency Management Symposium
Toronto, Ontario
Cost and Registration: Free, open until filled
This conference will look at strategies that enhance public-private partnerships in emergency management. Topics include emerging trends in responder interoperability, collaboration with first responders and other stakeholders, emergency management and the private sector in New York City, digital volunteer communities, and the evolving role of public-private relationships.

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November 28-29, 2011
Dealing with Disasters
Northumbria University and others
Cardiff, Wales
Cost and Registration: $401, open until filled
This conference looks at past disasters to promote resilience and speed future response and recovery. Topics include transportation, industrial, and other man-made disasters; the impacts of disasters on travel and tourism; and the relationships between risk, vulnerability, poverty, and development.

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November 28 to December 1, 2011
National Floodproofing Conference V
Association of State Floodplain Managers
Sacramento, California
Cost and Registration: $325 before October 17, open until filled
This conference will examine non-structural floodproofing techniques, materials, contractors, and funding strategies. Topics include nonstructural floodproofing policies, elevation and wet floodproofing, barriers and dry floodproofing, funding and financing, benefit-cost analysis, and impediments to floodproofing.

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8) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

[The following job postings provided an overview of some selected openings in hazards-related fields. For more information on a particular job, please follow the links provided.]

Food Security and Livelihood Coordinator
Solidarités International
Nairobi, Kenya
Salary: See posting
Closing Date: November 3, 2011
This position develops food security strategies for victims of war or natural disaster. Responsibilities include drafting project proposals, supporting fundraising and negotiation activities, leading workshops, and organizing food security initiatives. A bachelor’s degree, five years of NGO experience, and at least two years of experience in food security are required. Fluency in French and technical knowledge of agriculture and veterinary services are preferred.

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Natural Resource Protection Planner
Oregon Department of Forestry
Klamath Falls, Oregon
Salary: $38,820 to $56,592
Closing Date: October 31, 2011
This position plans and implements fire, prevention, and private forest program activities. Responsibilities include coordinating wildland fire response, analyzing wildfire statistical data, applying for grants, and monitoring expenditures. Applicants must be able to work in smoke, heat, inclement weather, and rough terrain. Two years of experience and a bachelor’s degree in natural resources are required. 

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Professional Research Assistant
University of Colorado, Boulder
Boulder, Colorado
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will manage the coastal and deep ocean water-level data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Geophysical Data Center. Responsibilities include developing products that support improved tsunami warning and community resiliency, building national and international collaboration, and authoring peer-reviewed articles and technical reports. A master’s degree in oceanography, at least four years of experience, and the ability to develop computer programs are required.

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Catastrophe Modeler
Risk Management Solutions
Newark, California
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will develop risk analyses for areas vulnerable to earthquakes or terrorist attacks. Responsibilities include developing human casualty forecasting models, conducting literature searches, preparing reports and presentations, and developing marketing initiatives. A master’s degree in health sciences and experience with data analysis are required. Experience with forecasting models and with the insurance and financial industries is preferred.

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Regional Disaster Preparedness Coordinator
WakeMed Health & Hospitals
Raleigh, North Carolina
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position works with regional healthcare facilities and agencies to plan, organize, and implement disaster response plans. Applicant must be a registered nurse or paramedic and have an associate’s degree in health care or emergency management. At least three years of experience with disaster preparedness and response and demonstrated success in writing and securing grant funding are required.

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Emergency Management Associate
IEM
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
Salary: Not Posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position assists clients in developing or updating emergency plans and ensures plans meet federal, state, and local regulations. Responsibilities include presenting technical information to non-technical audiences, speaking to groups of emergency managers or homeland security personnel, researching regulatory guides, and writing clear, concise technical reports. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management, one year of experience, and the ability to travel for up to 30 days at a time are required. Project management skills and familiarity with federal planning requirements are preferred.

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Assistant Professor
Sam Houston State University
Huntsville, Texas
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will teach introductory, advanced undergraduate, and graduate classes in the political science department. The ideal candidate will specialize in emergency management and must be able to teach research methods and statistics. A PhD and willingness to teach online are required. Experience with grant writing, teaching, and applied work in emergency management is preferred.

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Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to jolie.breeden@colorado.edu. Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.

To subscribe, visit http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/dr/ or e-mail jolie.breeden@colorado.edu.
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