Commentary

Editorial: Measles outbreak reveals willful ignorance of anti-vaccination movement

The lead editorial in the Greensboro News & Record hits the nail on the head this morning when it rightfully decries recent measles outbreaks in this country and one of the key reasons for them. This is from “And now, measles, a disease that’s a threat to all”:

Not long ago, measles was virtually extinct in America.

Now the disease is back and spreading fast, and we have our own willful ignorance to blame….

Measles cases have surged to a 25-year high in the United States. As of May 3, there were 764 reported cases in 23 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Measles is highly contagious. A quarter of those who contract it require hospitalization. Approximately 2 of every 1,000 people who are infected die. Two weeks ago in Los Angeles County, Calif., more than 1,000 students and staff members at UCLA and California State University, Los Angeles were quarantined on campus or sent home after measles cases began to surface.

Part of the problem is a fear of vaccinations, fueled by a viral myth that getting the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, shot can cause serious side effects, including autism. That myth is rooted in a thoroughly discredited 1998 British paper that was so flawed that it was withdrawn by its publisher.

But some people hold fast to the misinformation and have used religious exemptions to avoid vaccinations.

When these trends are combined with the surge of the disease globally, the editorial notes, we’ve got a big and unnecessary problem on our hands.

And while we’ve yet to have an outbreak here in North Carolina, it would seem likely to be just a matter of time. Here’s the conclusion to the piece:

….we have seen what happens in this state when parents resist vaccinating their children. An Asheville school last fall saw the worst chickenpox outbreak in the North Carolina since 1995. Thirty-six students contracted the disease at the Asheville Waldorf School, where nearly 75% of the 152 students were unvaccinated.

Nineteen of the 28 kindergartners who enrolled in the school for the 2017-18 school year had an exemption to at least one state-required vaccination, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported. In fact, Buncombe County leads the state in religious exemptions for vaccinations for kindergartners with a rate of 5.7 percent.

That county’s chief medical officer now worries about the threat of measles, given that cases have been reported in nearby Atlanta, Spartanburg, S.C., and most recently, eastern Tennessee.

Ironically, those who hew to the anti-vaccination fictions are typically well-educated and well-off financially, and they cross party lines. We can only hope their better judgment, if not their better angels, eventually prevails.

They are placing themselves and their loved ones at risk by avoiding immunization.

Not to mention the rest of us.

Environment, News

Environmental advocates push back against Duke Energy’s refusal to give in on coal ash excavation

Environmental advocates pushed back today against Duke Energy’s decision to appeal a ruling from the Department of Environmental Quality that it must excavate all of the coal ash from the utility’s remaining unlined pits. As Lisa Sorg reported in this space last month, Duke announced that it would contest DEQ’s ruling based on its contention that it was not based upon a “full consideration of the science and engineering” involved and that full excavation would impose “financial burdens” on its customers and the economy.

Today, lawyers at the Southern Environmental Law Center responded to the Duke appeal. This is from a press release issued by the group:

Groups Move to Defend N.C. Order that Duke Energy Must Clean Up Coal Ash Pollution at Six Sites: Duke’s Refusal Follows Years of Public Outcry, Pollution, Crimes & Spills

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Community groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center moved to intervene in appeals filed by Duke Energy in the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings in which Duke Energy tries to avoid cleaning up its coal ash pollution at six sites in North Carolina. At those sites, Duke Energy stores toxic coal ash in unlined, leaking pits sitting in groundwater next to rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs. For years and again in 2019, thousands of North Carolina families have called upon the state government and Duke Energy to clean up all of Duke’s leaking, unlined coal ash pits across the state. The Southern Environmental Law Center represents the following groups in today’s filings: Appalachian Voices, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, MountainTrue, Roanoke River Basin Association, Sierra Club, the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

“All of North Carolina’s waters and all its families deserve protection from Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash pollution,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center which represents the groups in court seeking cleanup of Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution. “Years of study show the only way to protect North Carolina families is to remove Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash waste from polluting, unlined waterfront pits.  When the coal ash from all of Duke’s sites is finally out of our groundwater in dry, lined storage at each site, North Carolina’s rivers will be cleaner, North Carolina’s drinking water will be safer, and North Carolina’s communities will be more secure.”   Read more

Commentary

Editorial: Supt. Mark Johnson’s new website “lies to and misleads North Carolinians”

Superintendent Mark Johnson – Image: NC School Finances website

This morning’s lead Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com reiterates and expands upon the analysis provided by education policy expert Kris Nordstrom last week on the main Policy Watch site (“Superintendent Johnson uses new website to gaslight educators”).

The editorial (“N.C. education ‘transparency’ dashboard misleads, is fatally flawed”) explains how Johnson’s new site is anything but transparent and, in fact, inaccurately manipulates key data.

The website database is part of a larger $6.4 million taxpayer-financed project. There is no breakout of the costs for Johnson’s “dashboard.”

No matter the exact cost, in its current form, we’ve shelled out a lot of money for something that is so significantly misleading as to be worthless. The specific “facts” presented may be in and of themselves accurate. But they are displayed in a way that lies to and misleads North Carolinians.

It must be fixed. Until that is done, the misleading and distorted information should be taken off line.

What’s wrong? Ask North Carolina’s 6th graders (who are required, as part of the state’s “standard course of study” to know the difference between median and average).

For starters, when it comes to teacher pay the comparisons are misleading, and incomplete.

Johnson uses statewide “average” public school teacher pay (a troublesome number to begin with and we’ll get to that) and then compares it to “median” household income and wages. The figures are then repeated in similarly misleading fashion for every county in the state.

As the editorial notes, when the math is applied properly, things look a little different.

Here’s the truth. Instead of teacher pay running ahead of household income, it is REALLY running way behind. Johnson’s rosy picture of teacher pay wilts – with a $15,548 deficit (average household income is $70,523).

And that deception doesn’t even begin to address the shift-shaping in the calculations of the state’s “average” teacher pay.

The $53,975 figure misses the mark. It is cobbled together with money most teachers DO NOT RECEIVE, to fit into a national association’s effort to look at how teachers are paid nationwide.

Nearly two-thirds of the state’s public school teachers make LESS than the average. Without the local supplement, state-funded average pay is $49,371. And another reality, only 12 of the state’s 115 school districts offered pay supplements last year that were AT OR MORE than the average supplement.

The editorial notes in conclusion:

Educators didn’t flood Raleigh last week because they were having a hard time spending the money General Assembly appropriated for public education.

They understand addition and subtraction. They know the differences between “average” and “median.” They can discern the truth (“I forgot to do my assignment”) from fiction (“The dog ate my homework.”)

They also have the ability to distinguish between propaganda and transparency. Taxpayer funds need to be spent to present information enlightens and empowers citizens – not distorts and misleads to further entrench public officials.

Mark Johnson, take down your dashboard.

Commentary, Environment, News

Policy Watch journalist Lisa Sorg honored for environmental reporting

Lisa Sorg

Policy Watch journalist Lisa Sorg was honored last night by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters for her numerous accomplishments and continuing excellence as our state’s top environmental reporter. The well-deserved recognition came as part of the League’s Green Tie Awards event in downtown Raleigh.

Sorg, who had already enjoyed distinguished and award-winning career with multiple news outlets before joining the Policy Watch team in 2016, received the “Catalyst Award” — a special recognition that’s only bestowed on select occasions to “someone who has taken exceptional action to create change and/or to bring attention to an important environmental issue. The award recognizes someone with a long history and/or strong commitment to serving the public and protecting environmental quality.”

Sorg, of course, has authored scores of powerful environmental stories in her time at Policy Watch on such varied topics as the state’s coal ash and GenX water pollution crises, hog farm pollution, climate change, a suspected cancer cluster in Iredell County, a proposed log fumigation facility in rural Delco that would have involved the release of large quantities of the dangerous chemical methyl bromide (Sorg’s reporting helped scuttle the proposal) and, just last week, the discovery of 1,4-Dioxane (a suspected carcinogen) in waste sludge delivered to a Sampson County compost production facility. Click here and here to explore the veritable mountain of work Lisa has generated in less than three years at Policy Watch.

Other award winners at last night’s event included a trio of state lawmakers (Sen. Valerie Foushee, Rep. Darren Jackson and Rep. Robert Reives II, UNC marine scientist Dr. Pete Peterson and, posthumously, longtime coastal conservation activist Dick Bierly. 

 

News

Special Washington update: There’s another Russia report coming (and Richard Burr is in the middle of it)

Senator Richard Burr

WASHINGTON — The political fight over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is expected to explode next week when lawmakers reconvene on Capitol Hill for the first time since the public release of the report.

As the partisan caterwauling continues over what Congress should do next, two low-key senators will be leading discussions behind closed doors about how their own report should move forward.

Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia – the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – have been working largely behind the scenes on their own investigation into Russian election interference.

Their collaboration has been billed as an effort that’s remained largely bipartisan on a topic and in a political climate where work across the aisle is exceedingly rare. But a rift between Burr and Warner that spilled into public view earlier this year could deepen as lawmakers spar over Mueller’s public finding and as Democrats demand answers from Burr about new revelations about his communication with the White House about the FBI’s investigations.

Warner laid out his hopes for the Senate’s next steps in an op-ed published Thursday in USA Today, demanding that Congress investigate Mueller’s “sobering findings regarding the president’s attempts to obstruct justice.”

Warner wrote: “The special counsel’s investigation now confronts us with an important choice. We can overlook the president’s morally outrageous behavior; we can ignore the deep deficiencies in our laws and our defenses against foreign interference; or we can do everything in our power to make sure that what happened in 2016 can never happen again.”

Burr, on the other hand, has been cautious in his comments about the president. In a statement issued the day the Mueller report was released, the North Carolina senator didn’t mention Trump.

“I am reviewing Special Counsel Mueller’s report carefully. Furthermore, I look forward to presenting the American people with an accounting of the facts the Committee has uncovered as we conclude our own investigation,” Burr said. “It is my hope to release the first of our final reports in the coming weeks.”

Burr’s office did not respond to requests for comment about whether he plans to ask Mueller to testify before his committee, or whether the report raises new issues that the committee intends to pursue.

The Mueller report revealed that Burr apparently supplied the White House counsel’s office with information about FBI investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Politico reported.

Burr’s spokeswoman, Caitlin Carroll, told Politico that the senator “does not recall this specific conversation with then-White House counsel Don McGahn in March of 2017, but that “any conversations between the two would have been in reference to the need for White House personnel to voluntarily comply with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation.”

A Democratic committee aide said the status of the investigation has been largely unchanged by the release of the Mueller report, although it’s a little easier to say with confidence that the Senate report will wrap up by the end of this year. The end of Mueller’s investigation could make it easier for the committee to get access to witnesses.

Warner issued a statement last week calling it “essential that Congress hear directly” from Mueller regarding his investigation. “The Senate Intelligence Committee continues its own investigation, and I expect to receive a full briefing, an unredacted report, and all the materials underlying the Special Counsel’s findings,” Warner said.

Warner’s office declined to comment on the revelations about Burr’s communications with the White House that were revealed in Mueller’s report.

But some think those revelations threaten the integrity of the Senate investigation.

“Burr has a lot of explaining to do,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and director of CAP Action Fund’s Moscow Project. Read more