Officials work to pinpoint cause of ‘Armageddon’-like blasts
By BOB SALSBERG
Friday, September 14
LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) — Investigators were working Friday to pinpoint the cause of a series of natural gas explosions that killed a teenager, injured at least 10 others and left dozens of homes in smoldering ruins.
Authorities said an estimated 8,000 people were displaced at the height of Thursday’s post-explosions chaos, though some were cleared to return to their homes in one of three towns north of Boston rocked by the disaster.
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to investigate, saying pipelines are within its jurisdiction.
The rapid-fire series of gas explosions that one official described as “Armageddon” ignited fires in at least 39 homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, forcing entire neighborhoods to evacuate as crews scrambled to fight the flames and shut off the gas and electricity. Gas remained shut off Friday in most of the area, and the streets were eerily deserted.
Authorities said Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, died after a chimney toppled by an exploding house crashed into his car. He was rushed to a Boston hospital but pronounced dead there in the evening.
Massachusetts State Police urged all residents with homes serviced by Columbia Gas in the three communities to evacuate, snarling traffic and causing widespread confusion as residents and local officials struggled to understand what was happening. Hundreds spent the night in shelters, and school was canceled Friday as families waited to return to their homes.
“It looked like Armageddon, it really did,” Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield told reporters. “There were billows of smoke coming from Lawrence behind me. I could see pillars of smoke in front of me from the town of Andover.”
Gov. Charlie Baker said state and local authorities were investigating but that it could take days or weeks before they turn up answers.
Early Friday, the utility issued a statement saying its crews need to visit each of the 8,600 affected customers to shut off each gas meter and conduct a safety inspection.
“We expect this will be an extended restoration effort, and we will work tirelessly to restore service to the affected customers,” the statement said.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency blamed the fires on gas lines that had become over-pressurized but said investigators were still examining what happened.
Columbia had announced earlier Thursday that it would be upgrading gas lines in neighborhoods across the state, including the area where the explosions happened. It was not clear whether work was happening there Thursday, and a spokeswoman did not return calls.
Lawrence resident Bruce Razin was among the evacuees standing outside the Colonial Heights neighborhood near the city’s high school trying to decide what to do next late Thursday.
Officials had cut power in the area and the streets were pitch black, save for emergency vehicle lights. Razin said he arrived just as residents were being evacuated, and immediately saw the house two doors down was leveled from an explosion.
“I couldn’t imagine if that was my house,” said Razin, who purchased his home nearly two years ago. “It’s total destruction. I’d be completely devastated.”
With a backpack filled with personal items he had hastily grabbed, he said he’d head to his mother’s home a few towns over for the night.
In Lawrence, a man whose neighborhood was among dozens that erupted in fire says he ran into his basement to find that the room was glowing. Resident Ra Nam says he was in his yard when the smoke detector in his basement went off around 4:30 p.m.
When he ran downstairs and saw the boiler on fire, he quickly grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out. Minutes later, Nam said he heard a loud boom from his neighbor’s house and the ground shook. Nam said a woman and two kids had made it out of the house but the basement was on fire.
Lawrence General Hospital said it was treating 10 victims, including at least one in critical condition.
Aerial footage of the area showed some homes that appeared to be torn apart by blasts.
Joseph Solomon, the police chief in nearby Methuen, said 20 to 25 homes were on fire in Lawrence when he responded to help. He said there are so many fires “you can’t even see the sky.”
The three communities house more than 146,000 residents about 26 miles (40 kilometers) north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border. Lawrence, the largest of them, is a majority Latino city with a population of about 80,000.
Gas explosions have claimed lives and destroyed property around the U.S. in recent years:
— A buildup of natural gas triggered an explosion and fire that killed seven people in apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2016.
— In 2014, a gas explosion in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood killed eight people and injured about 50. Consolidated Edison later agreed to pay $153 million to settle charges after the state’s Public Service Commission found Con Ed violated state safety regulations. A gas leak had been reported before that blast.
— A 2011 natural gas explosion killed five people in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and that state’s largest gas utility was fined by regulators who called the company’s safety record “downright alarming.”
— In September 2010, a Pacific Gas and Electric gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.
Associated Press writers Philip Marcelo in Lawrence, Alanna Durkin Richer and Collin Binkley in Boston and Mary Schwalm in North Andover contributed.
UB Applauds GAINN Act Momentum
United By Interest
More Members join bipartisan legislation introduced by Conservative and Congressional Black Caucus members to help fund infrastructure investments in distressed urban and rural communities.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – United By Interest (UBI) applauds the addition of House Freedom Caucus Member Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) and Congressional Black Caucus Member Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) as cosponsors of the GAIIN Act (H.R. 6104), bipartisan legislation that would authorize the Department of Agriculture to sell of distressed assets and use a portion of the proceeds to fund infrastructure investments in distressed urban and rural communities.
The addition of Davidson and Jackson Lee extends the bipartisan support for this legislation to three members of the Congressional Black Caucus and three members of the House Freedom Caucus. Other sponsors include Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), Rep. W. Lacy Clay (D-MO), Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL).
“This legislation is a pilot project that ingeniously helps to bridge the gap between public infrastructure needs and availability of public funding sources in a manner that can be supported by both conservatives — no increase in taxes, borrowing, or the size of government — and liberals –- no reduction in government benefits or protections for borrowers,” said UBI partner Mike Williams. “Congress similarly authorized a similar asset sale in 1986 to help fund tax reform.”
UBI recently cited a Brookings Institution study that found that 73 of the 100 poorest districts are represented by conservative Republicans or a Member of the Congressional Black Caucus or Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the power base of their respective parties. Thus, despite their ideological differences, these members represent districts that align on need and economic interest and collectively would have significant power to move and shape bipartisan legislation.
“The diverse support for the GAIIN Act is proof that even in an election season, Congressional Black Caucus and Freedom Caucus members are enthusiastic to work together when their intersts align,” said UBI Partner Sam Geduldig.
United By Interest, Washington D.C.’s only bipartisan majority minority-owned public affairs firm, was founded on the belief that policy-making should focus on the members in these 100 poorest Congressional districts. They serve longer and are in virtually no jeopardy of losing re-election. It is time that Washington paid more attention to these members – and, more importantly, their constituents. Our team reflects the diversity of perspectives and priorities in America today. Working together united in purpose, we are uniquely able to understand and navigate competing viewpoints to build non-traditional coalitions that bridge the divide between polarization and legislative compromise. For more information, visit our website at www.ubidc.org.
Why NASA chose Senegal to find out more about an asteroid in outerspace
September 13, 2018
Geologist, Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD)
David Baratoux a reçu des financements du CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales) et de l’ERC grant Lucky Star (Bruno Sicardy, Observatoire de Paris) et de l’Uranoscope de France pour soutenir la participation française et sénégalaise à l’observation de l’occultation stellaire par Ultima Thulé.
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation FR.
Dozens of scientists from NASA and France, along with five tons of astronomical equipment descended on Dakar, Senegal in August 2018. They joined 21 Senegalese scientists in an important mission: collecting precious data in preparation for the flyby of an asteroid called Ultima Thule on January 2019. The project marked the first time Senegal was involved in a space mission to explore our solar system. Natasha Joseph from the Conversation Africa asked the chairman of the African Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences, David Baratoux, about the mission.
What was the purpose of the mission to Senegal?
NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft has become famous for revealing Pluto’s amazing icy landscapes to the world. Now it’s pursuing its journey to the edge of the solar system – and to Ultima Thule, an asteroid from the Kuiber Belt Object (that’s a small chunk of rock or dirty ice which orbits the sun). This will be the most distant object ever explored by a man-made spacecraft.
It orbits around the sun and is an unknown world. So was Pluto, before New Horizon’s flyby.
Preparing a flyby requires precise knowledge about the size and shape of this object. However, Ultima Thule is usually not visible using ground-based telescopes; it is too far away and too small.
Figuring out how far New Horizons must travel to reach Ultima Thule has been one of the big challenges. This is where something a phenomenon called stellar occultations – and Senegal – came in.
A stellar occultation involves an asteroid and a star: the light from a star is blocked by the asteroid from reaching an observer. They’re similar to a solar eclipse. It’s generally a very short event. When Ultima Thulé is involved, it only lasts around a second.
Ultima Thule has already been involved in one stellar occultation, captured in 2017 from sites in Patagonia. That event helped NASA to calculate the trajectory New Horizons must follow to reach the asteroid.
New Horizons scientists predicted a new stellar occultation for August 2018, which would be visible in Colombia, Senegal, Mali, and Algeria.
So why was Senegal chosen?
A few factors were taken into consideration. These included security conditions, climatic conditions at that time of year, the existence of potential scientific partners, and what facilities were available.
Senegal has made great strides in astronomy and planetary sciences in recent years. That’s been largely driven by the Senegalese Association for the Promotion of Astronomy, led by Maram Kaire. Some Senegalese researchers are also involved in the African Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences, which I head up.
Scientists at work in Senegal. Jean-Luc Dauvergne, Journaliste at Ciel et Espace
And so, NASA focused its efforts in Senegal. It sent 21 teams to the country, and six to Columbia, which had less favourable climatic conditions. One team, composed of Algerian astronomers from the Centre de Recherche en Astrophysique et Géophysique, also attempted to observe the occultation in the south of Algeria.
So was the mission a success?
Three nights were dedicated to preparation and training. The 21 teams in Senegal were composed of Senegalese, French and US scientists. Participants were selected based on experience, their ability to work in a team, and how quickly they could pick up skills.
A time lapse video shows the training sessions in the new city of Diamniadio, near Dakar. François Colas, Observatoire de Paris.
Each team was responsible for a telescope and data acquisition system. During the first two nights of training, they oriented the telescope, placed the star that would be occulted by Ultima Thumé in the field of view and recorded 10 or 20 minutes of images.
We dealt with technical problems as they arose, and rearranged the teams as needed. On the third night the teams set up at the 21 pre-identified sites, training in real conditions, in rural and remote areas. People in the villages close to the observation sites were very welcoming and friendly – even when, in some cases, they found three strangers with a large telescope in their fields in the middle of the night.
The stellar occultation happened on the fourth night. Our teams were in place. Some weren’t able to collect any data because their view was obscured by clouds. Others recorded images 10 minutes before and after the predicted time of occultation. The data are now being processed by the New Horizons team.
How will Senegalese science benefit from the August mission?
This experiment was much more than a short-term visit of researchers from prestigious scientific institutions to a developing country. It was an inspiring example of scientific and international cooperation.
But such initiatives are only really valuable if they’re integrated into a country’s long-term scientific plans. That’s exactly what Senegal has done. The government recognised that this work fits in with some of its broader plans for higher education and research.
We were even granted an audience with Senegal’s President,
In front of the Presidential Palace with Macky Sall, President of the Republic of Senegal. The group photo includes Senegal, French, and US researchers, and French and US diplomatic representation. Courtesy Ministry of Research, Higher Education and Innovation of Senegal
The Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, Mary Teuw Niane, and his team organised a public outreach programme before and after the observation.
Scientists, some of them local and others from France and the US, delivered public lectures. We were all struck by the incredible questions and discussions these sparked. People asked us about the science itself, but also about how planetary science research and related technologies like telecommunications could benefit Senegal’s economic and scientific development.
Marc Buie, the chief of the experiment in Senegal and Colombia, commented to me that he had never seen such a thirst for knowledge among non-scientists. What’s really exciting is that many young people attended these sessions, so that may inspire a new generation of scientists.
How the dairy lobby’s cash grab put Canada in Trump’s crosshairs
September 11, 2018
Executive Fellow, School of Public Policy, University of Calgary; Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute; Associate Faculty, School of Business, Royal Roads University, University of Calgary
Hugh Stephens is affiliated with School of Public Policy, University of Calgary as Executive Fellow
University of Calgary provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation CA.
Remember the early days of the NAFTA renegotiations, when all Donald Trump wanted to do was “tweak” the agreement as far as Canada was concerned?
That seems like a century ago now. A lot has happened to poison the well between then and now, including the U.S. president’s over-the-top reaction to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments after the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, but one of the biggest obstacles has been the rise to prominence of Canada’s dairy supply management system.
Trump may not have a sophisticated understanding of international trade, but he understands numbers and politics.
When a small group of Wisconsin farmers pointed out that the nice little export niche they had carved out selling diafiltered milk protein to Canadian food processors had been shut down, and that Canada maintained tariffs of up to 300 per cent to prevent access to its dairy market, “The Donald” got the message.
After all, Wisconsin was a swing state that he was not expected to win during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And “300 per cent tariffs” makes a great sound bite.
And now, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland back in Washington to resume NAFTA renegotiations, the key to success is spelled M-I-L-K, according to a top Trump economic official.
Dairy farmers demonstrate
Meanwhile, Canada’s dairy farmers have been up to their usual antics, demonstrating in Montréal and demanding “absolutely no concessions.”
With a Québec election underway, it would be a brave Québec politician to call their bluff. Look what happened when Maxime Bernier stuck to his principles. It cost him the leadership of the Conservative Party, which instead went to milk-slurping Andrew Scheer.
How did we get into this box?
Supply management has been around for decades, since the early 1970s. Introduced as a means to ensure stable markets by controlling supply, it is built on a system of quotas that allows quota-holders (licensed dairy producers) to produce a set quantity of milk.
The price for that milk at the wholesale level is set by provincial boards. The price of raw milk will drive the cost of all other dairy products from butter to ice cream, cheese and yogurt. The result has been a price structure that has rewarded dairy quota-holders handsomely but has meant expensive dairy products for consumers.
The annual cost to consumers of inflated dairy is in the hundreds of dollars per family, affecting poorer families disproportionally. And it’s all designed to prop up a system that has made, according to Statistics Canada, Canada’s 11,000 dairy farmers on average worth over $5 million each.
To maintain the artificial, walled garden of the Canadian dairy market and the “made-in-Canada” prices, barriers have been erected to keep out more competitively priced dairy products from other countries.
Diafiltered milk — milk that has been filtered through a membrane to concentrate it and raise its protein content — is the biggest issue for the United States.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney signs the North American Free Trade Agreement during a signing ceremony in Ottawa in 1992 as Michael Wilson, the international trade minister, looks on. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
The product did not exist when NAFTA was first negotiated in the 1990s, so it was not included on the list of blocked items that Canada negotiated as part of its protection of supply management in the original agreement. It was a new product developed in the U.S. and sold into Canada at the lower American price, since it was classified as a protein ingredient and avoided NAFTA dairy tariffs.
Wisconsin dairy producers invested in plants to produce diafiltered milk for the Canadian market. It proved to be popular with Canadian food processors — even farmer-owned dairy co-ops — because it lowered their costs.
The market for the product gave the U.S. a surplus in dairy trade with Canada of $475 million in 2017.
A crack in the armour
The arrangement seemed to be working well until the Canadian dairy industry in 2016 decided that the sale of diafiltered milk protein was a crack in the armour of supply management and had to be fixed.
Failing previously to get the product reclassified as milk, they established a new category of milk product in Canada under the supply management system, called Class 7, that would be sold (to Canadian processors) at the lower world price rather than the “made-in-Canada” price that consumers pay.
This effectively shut the door on the market for U.S. diafiltered milk exports. But that wasn’t all.
Because of the nature of the dairy industry, as demand for butterfat (butter, cream) goes up, so does the production of unwanted skim milk, the byproduct of butterfat production.
After many years of flat-lining, butterfat demand in Canada is going up. Since foreign producers are not allowed to help meet that demand, Canadian production of milk has increased, leading in turn to a surplus of skim milk.
Some of that surplus is turned into diafiltered milk protein and sold in Canada. The rest is sold on the world market at discounted prices. The alternative is to simply pour it down the drain, an outcome that is a regular occurrence under supply management as the system struggles to match supply and demand.
An over-abundance of milk
Since there is a glut of milk on the world market, these sales often displace U.S. exporters. American producers complain that the Canadian exports are the result of a closed system that subsidizes the production of a dumped product. Their argument is that you can’t have a closed market restricting imports while at the same time depressing world prices for others by dumping milk solids into export markets.
Canada’s supply management system would likely have flown under the radar in the NAFTA talks, but for the determination of the Canadian dairy lobby to close the door to the import of diafiltered milk protein. Because of this money grab, milk has become the bee in Donald Trump’s bonnet, and Canada and the rest of the Canadian economy is now a prime Trump target.
It’s ironic that the government will almost certainly have to give on Class 7 milk if it’s to ink a deal with the U.S.
A deal on diafiltered milk protein will allow the Trudeau government to claim that it protected the essence of supply management, but at least the system will be further eroded. No doubt the industry will be bought off with “adjustment payments.”
One way or the other we we all have to pay. However, I would rather pay as a taxpayer to wean Canada off supply management than pay through punitive U.S. trade actions against other sectors of the economy in order to retain a system that has long outlived its usefulness.