Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tough commute likely after Bay Bridge rod snaps

SAN FRANCISCO – The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has been closed indefinitely after a rod installed during last month's emergency repairs snapped, causing a traffic nightmare for the 26,000 motorists who cross the landmark span every day.

Engineers on Wednesday will evaluate the damage caused when the rod and metal brace fell into the 73-year-old bridge's westbound lanes during Tuesday evening's rush hour.

At least two vehicles — a car and a small truck — either were struck by or ran into the fallen rod, said California Highway Patrol Officer Peter Van Eckhardt, but no injuries were reported.

The California Department of Transportation said Tuesday that it will remain closed indefinitely.

A spokesman for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, meanwhile, said extra trains would run during the morning commute.

The rod that fell Tuesday was erected last month during an emergency repair job. It was holding in place a saddle-like cap that had been installed over a cracked link discovered over the Labor Day weekend.

When the rod apparently snapped at about 5:30 p.m., it brought down with it a steel patch roughly 3 feet long, authorities said.

"If you look at the totality of the circumstances — you've got the 5:30 commute, you have a 5,000-pound piece of steel falling out of the sky. We are so fortunate that no one was injured or killed," CHP Sgt. Trent Cross told KTVU-TV.

Officers managed to clear the Oakland-bound traffic from the lower deck of the bridge by 8 p.m. but were still clearing cars from the few remaining open lanes of the upper deck an hour later, he said.

The bridge was closed last month over the holiday weekend while long-planned earthquake safety upgrades were being made to the bridge. When the crack was discovered, state transportation officials initially feared it would prevent them from reopening the span in time for the start of the work week.

But the unexpected work only ended up taking a few extra hours.

California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, officials had nothing to say Tuesday about what might have caused the repair job to fail. The department issued a brief statement saying only that "structural engineers and inspectors are onsite to assess the damage and will make a determination as to how long repairs will take.

"At this time, the bridge is closed until further notice," the statement said.

Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, a civil engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has spent 20 years studying the Bay Bridge, called the initial crack a "warning sign" of potentially bigger safety issues with the bridge.

"The repair they were doing was really a Band-Aid," said Astaneh-Asl, who criticized Caltrans at the time for rushing to reopen the bridge. "The Band-Aid broke, in essence."

Astaneh-Asl said the failure of the repair job demonstrates the need for a longer-term solution. The bridge's age and design make it susceptible to collapse, especially if commercial tractor-trailers are allowed to continue using it, he said.

"I think Caltrans is putting public relations ahead of public safety," he said.

By LISA LEFF and JOHN MARSHALL, Associated Press Writers

Dairy farmers tell lawmakers of crisis

Prices have fallen amid plunging consumer demand. At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, talk of a solution centers on shipping milk and other dairy products to developing countries.

Reporting from Washington - With dairy prices off nearly 40% from last year's peak, farmers, industry advocates and milk processors filled a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing room Tuesday to discuss lasting solutions to their crisis.

Consumer demand, particularly for cheese, has slipped amid the worldwide economic downturn. But production continued to grow. In September, the price dairy farmers received for 100 pounds of milk was $11.90, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, down from a high of $19.50 in June 2008.

The surplus is not easy to eliminate, because dairy cows must be milked -- or slaughtered. With the average cost of producing milk around $18 per 100 pounds, depending on the state, farmers lose money every day.

And their plight, Wisconsin dairy farmer Paul Toft said during the Capitol Hill hearing, affects all Americans.

"Whether it's a furniture store or grocery store, [our money] keeps all these businesses going," he said.

Toft testified that he is losing $7,000 per month.

The hearing was co-chaired by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

"There are not many businesses where people do backbreaking labor seven days a week and come out financially worse for their trouble," Gillibrand said.

Much of the talk about solutions centered on exports to developing countries.

If the Chinese drink milk, "we'll find a way to get it there," said Eric Ooms, a New York dairy farmer with 400 cows.

The Obama administration recently signed into law $350 million in emergency aid for the industry.

The USDA had already allocated nearly $1 billion for dairy product purchases and subsidies for the 2009 fiscal year.

Farmers say the milk pricing system needs to be overhauled, something the senators agreed would be looked into when the next farm bill, scheduled for 2012, comes up.

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times

French Journalists Interview Cynthia McKinney and Niels Harrit

This is something you have not yet seen in any US media. French independent media La Télé Libre interviews two of the most prominent 9/11 truth activists, Cynthia McKinney and Niels Harrit. To understand the context of the interview, you need to know what is happening in France right now, because 9/11 is surely becoming a hot topic.

A year ago, French comedian Jean-Marie Bigard publicly questionned the official 9/11 story on a popular TV show and said a new investigation is needed. That was enough for him to be called a revisionist by a myriad of journalists and he even received many death threats along the way. Nine months later, Bigard came back on the topic, but this time he went as far as creating 11 videos in which he uses humor to ask questions about disturbing elements of the 9/11 Commission report. He is invited on several TV shows to talk about this and each time he gets vilified by journalists.

Recently, actor and director Mathieu Kassovitz also questioned the foundations of the official version of 9/11 in another TV show. He got the same treatment from the French press.

Both Mathieu Kassovitz and Jean-Marie Bigard will debate this hot topic on France 2 this October 28th (we will post a video of this show as soon as we receive it). Originally, France 2 was supposed to air a debate including two other people who also question the official story: Éric Laurent and Niels Harrit. A few days before the debate, France 2 announces that Harrit and Laurent are excluded from the debate.

One important question remains and journalists from La Télé Libre ask it: in a free society, can we question the official version of 9/11?

Interview: Cynthia McKinney and Niels Harrit

The following is an article by La Télé Libre and freely translated in English by

Eight years after the attacks that devastated the American soil, having doubts is still scandalous. As more and more people around the world challenge the the official story of this event, the public expression of doubts is now sacrilegious. Depending on the social rank that you will occupy, it will be worth, at best, chuckles by some ignorant people, or at worst, the adversity of opponents determined to avoid a debate on the subject.

Both an audiovisual laboratory and an opposing force, La Télé Libre, to the contrary, is openly inscribed in this question: for two years they have met some of those who offer a different point of view on 9/11. Whether it is theorists convinced of a military-industrial complex plot like Webster Tarpley, journalists who somehow or other try to stand up for the the government’s version like Guillaume Dasquiné, Web 2.0 activists of, the architect and speaker Richard Gage, AIA, or artists expressing their doubts like Mathieu Kassovitz, all reflect a growing interrogation in the public opinion regarding the traditional narrative of the 9/11 attacks.

9/11 coming out

Recently, in Paris, a conference entitled Vers la vérité was organized by those who, coming from different horizons, share the same goal: a new 9/11 investigation. For 3 days, and particularly during a special evening in which a screening of the 9/11 documentary Zero: An investigation into 9/11 took place, simple citizens had the chance to meet with political, scientific and artistic figures. We went for an interview with two of them who both testify in their area of expertise, of an overt will to engage into alerting citizens on the official version anomalies and discrepancies.

Former US Congresswoman, representative with the Democratic Party for twelve years and candidate in the 2008 Presidential elections with the Green Party, Cynthia McKinney, a dissent figure by excellence of the political life in the US, talks with us about the importance of understanding the whole story of the Bush administration to better grasp the nature of 9/11.

On her side, creating an iconoclast duo, Danish scientist Niels Harrit, also told us about his downright rejection of the official version, and more precisely of the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology, a government agency mandated to study the collapse of the towers), going as far as detailing evidence that, in his opinion, allow to declare that the 3 towers — and not 2 — that collapsed on 9/11 in New York City were knowingly part of a premeditated controlled-demolition.

This chemist was recently in the news for having co-authored a controversial study asserting the presence of explosive substances in the dust of the World Trade Center (nanothermite). The man that we had the opportunity to interview lengthily is definitely the one by which scandals happen: recently announced to be part of the Guillaume Durand’s TV show on France 2 on Wednesday October 28, to discuss the topic with opponents, the scientist was unexpectedly asked to stay home in Copenhagen, his presence being judged inconvenient

Original article in French available at

Worsening job picture fuels slide in confidence

CHICAGO — Consumers' confidence about the U.S. economy fell unexpectedly in October as job prospects remained bleak, a private research group said Tuesday, fueling speculation that an already gloomy holiday shopping forecast could worsen.

The Consumer Confidence Index, released by The Conference Board, sank unexpectedly to 47.7 in October — its second-lowest reading since May.

Forecasters predicted a higher reading of 53.1.

A reading above 90 means the economy is on solid footing. Above 100 signals strong growth.

The index has seesawed since reaching a historic low of 25.3 in February and climbed to 53.4 in September.

Economists watch consumer confidence because spending on goods and services by Americans accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity by federal measures. While the reading doesn't always predict short-term spending, it's a helpful barometer of spending levels over time, especially for expensive, big-ticket items.

Recent economic data, from housing to manufacturing, has offered mixed signals but some evidence that an economic recovery might be slow.

But on Tuesday, the figures showed that shoppers have a grim outlook for the future, The Conference Board said, expecting a worsening business climate, fewer jobs and lower salaries. That's particularly bad news for retailers who depend on the holiday shopping season for a hefty share of their annual revenue.

"Consumers also remain quite pessimistic about their future earnings, a sentiment that will likely constrain spending during the holidays," said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board's Consumer Research Center.

Economists expect holiday sales to be at best flat from a year ago, which saw the biggest declines since at least 1967 when the Commerce Department started collecting the data.

The Consumer Confidence Index survey, which was sent to 5,000 households, had a cutoff date of Oct. 21.

The news came on the heels of rosier data about the nation's housing market.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index, which studies real estate transactions in 20 major cities, showed home prices rose in August, the third straight monthly increase and a sign that a housing recovery might be taking hold.

The measure showed the home price index climbed 1 percent from July to a seasonally adjusted reading of 144.5. While prices are down 11.4 percent from August a year ago, the annual declines have slowed since February.

Prices are at levels not seen since August 2003 and have fallen almost 30 percent from the peak in May 2006.

The latest index shows a widespread turnaround with prices rising month-over-month in 15 metro areas since June.

The Dow Jones industrials wavered on the dueling reports, but the index was up nearly more than 64 points to 9,932.20 by mid-afternoon.


Farmers' incomes dry up as milk prices plunge about 50%

WEST GROVE, Pa. — Milk prices have plunged by about 50% from the historic highs of last summer, pummeling producers such as Walt Moore, a fourth-generation farmer whose family has worked the rolling fields of southeastern Pennsylvania for nearly a century.

"If these prices stay low through 2009, there's going to be a lot of producers that don't make it," Moore says, noting that several nearby dairy operators have already decided to sell their herds and get out of the business.

While many producers managed to sock away profits early last year, they still might not be able to survive. "This time, the rainy day will last a lot longer than one day," Moore says.

Dairy operations across the country are taking an enormous hit as prices plummet. The number of dairy cows being sent to slaughter has risen by about 20% from last year, as desperate farmers cull their herds and sell at fire-sale prices. Adding to the problem, banks are less willing or able to extend farmers' loan payments amid the financial turmoil.

The U.S. Agriculture Department has begun providing emergency aid, though the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) in a recent letter to President Obama warned that thousands of farms and tens of thousands of jobs could be lost this year without more aggressive federal efforts.

"Demand really dropped off the cliff in the last quarter of last year, and things aren't looking much better this year," says Chris Galen, NMPF spokesman. "It's one more indication of how much the global economy has slowed."

Pennsylvania producers received about $11.50 per hundred pounds of milk in February, while production costs ranged from $15.50 to $18.50, says the state's Center for Dairy Excellence. The USDA is providing special payments to dairy farmers, but the program fills only a part of the gap. Payments are capped, making them of less benefit to larger farms.

Producers are reeling because of not just the size of the decline, but the speed. Futures contracts for Class III milk, a measure of wholesale prices, reached a high of $20 per hundred pounds in June on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. By January, the price was below $10, though it has since ticked up to about $10.50.

"This is an unprecedented time," Moore says. "In the 20 years I've been in this full time, I've never seen anything like it."

Why prices are falling

There are several reasons for the implosion: oversupply, falling export demand and continued high prices for supplies such as feed. The dairy sector in the past has been less prone to huge price swings than other areas of agriculture, but that's changing as the industry relies more on the markets and less on government programs.

"Up until recently, the U.S. dairy industry was fairly isolated. It isn't anymore," says Roger Hoskin, a dairy analyst at the U.S. Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.

"Call it globalization. ... When the export market is strong, they do well; when the export market is weak, domestic use is not enough," Hoskin says.

While the industry suffers, consumers are benefiting. Retail dairy prices haven't fallen as much as wholesale milk prices, but they have come down. Dairy prices fell 2.4% in February, according to the Labor Department's consumer price index. The average price for a gallon of milk has declined 14.7% in the past 12 months, from $3.87 to $3.32.

"Typically there are some lags in the declines in the consumer prices," says Bill Lapp, principal of Advanced Economic Solutions. "We probably face some more downward pressure on dairy prices for a couple more months at least."

Farmers are trying to reduce supply as prices plummet. The number of dairy cows being slaughtered across the country, for example, is about 20% higher than average, Lapp says. Because so many cows are coming to market, farmers are selling them at rock-bottom prices.

In addition to its price supports, the U.S. Agriculture Department has started buying surplus milk, butter and other products to clear the market and put a floor under prices. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the USDA will donate some of the surplus dairy products to food banks and other nutrition programs, while bartering some for commodities needed for overseas food donation programs.

The International Dairy Foods Association, which represents food processors, is generally not a big proponent of federal intervention. Afraid of losing suppliers, however, Association President Connie Tipton says the industry should look for new ways to boost demand. Tipton suggested that as the USDA begins buying surplus milk and butter, for instance, it should supplement its purchases with products such as yogurt and low-fat cheese that are gaining consumer acceptance.

In Pennsylvania, Moore is looking at the markets, trying to figure out whether to lock in prices months ahead. He's also seeking opportunities amid the gloom. "If you've got room for cows, fill up ... now," Moore says. "You can probably build a barn cheaper than you could a couple years ago."

By Sue Kirchhoff, USA TODAY

Corrections officers charged in 'dog fondling' incident

POWHATAN, VA (WWBT) - Five Virginia corrections officers stand accused of animal cruelty, following a bizarre sexual act involving a K-9 dog. But attorneys believe prosecutors will have a tough time making the charges stick.

There's a kennel, at the Powhatan Correctional Center, where officers learn how to become K-9 handlers. But prosecutors say, at least twice this summer, a dog was being handled...inappropriately.

Cruelty charges were filed against 25-year-old Kelvin Thompson and four others, after Thompson was told...massaging his dog's genitals, would somehow make the animal easier to train. The incidents were videotaped, and later reported to a supervisor by another corrections employee.

Dog trainers say that's obviously "not" a normal method of training.

"It has been used previously with very aggressive dogs to make them more submissive and passive, because it exhausts the dog but it's an inappropriate way of training dogs," said animal trainer Jemi Hodge.

Thompson's Roanoke attorney believes Powhatan prosecutors would have a tough time proving cruelty saying, "The statute was not intended to deal with something like this." Our legal analyst agrees.

"Animal cruelty is conduct that is tantamount to torture. That inflicts pain. That puts the animal at risk of loss of life," said legal analyst Steve Benjamin.

Thompson's attorney believes his client was being hazed, saying "I think it's been kind of a standing joke there." Adding that the other officers were heard "laughing" on tape.

Jemi it's almost more benefit for the people doing it, than it is the dog. Even if they can't win a conviction, it's possible, that prosecutors have something else in mind.

"The embarrassment factor alone is going to be sufficient punishment for these individuals," said Benjamin.

In addition to 25 year old Kelvin Thompson of Chatham, the accused officers are 40 year old Melvin Boone of Waverly, 27 year old Adam Webb of Burkeville, 35 year old Cheri Campbell of Burkeville, and 33 year old Anthony Eldridge of Burkeville.

According to the Department of Corrections, two of the five accused officers are no longer working for the state, but all five are due back in court in November and December.

(c) 2009. WWBT, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Costco to accept food stamps nationwide

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Costco Wholesale Corp. said Wednesday that it will start accepting food stamps at its warehouse clubs nationwide after testing them at stores in New York.

It's a big about-face for a retailer that has catered to bargain-hunting but affluent shoppers, and it's a sign of the grim reality facing retailers and their customers. The number of Americans relying on government food subsidies to eat recently hit a record 36 million.

Costco, which is based in Issaquah, Wash., began accepting food stamps at two stores in Brooklyn and Queens in May under political pressure from officials who worked with the company on opening a club in a redevelopment area in Manhattan.

The company quickly expanded to all six of its stores in New York state.

Company officials said they had doubted many customers would use food stamps but it turned out new members said they were joining precisely because the company accepted the assistance program.

"We recognize these are tough times and more people are food-stamp-eligible," Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said Wednesday.

Costco said it hopes to accept food stamps at half of its 407 stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico by Thanksgiving and at the remainder as soon as it wins regulatory approval in each state.

While most major grocery chains have accepted the food subsidy for years, more retailers have been accepting food stamps as the process has eased and the number of people using them has soared.

Most users no longer receive stamps, but instead carry the value on a card that can be swiped at checkout much like a bank debit card.

That makes it easier and more discrete for shoppers and speeds the checkout and reimbursement processes for retailers.

Because about half of Costco's customers are small businesses and the rest tend to be more affluent than shoppers at traditional grocery chains, Galanti said, executives had assumed there wouldn't be much response to it accepting food stamps but realized that assumption may have been wrong.

"Certainly this economy was a wake-up call," Galanti recently told investors. "It is not just very low-end economic strata that are using these (who) typically don't have purchasing power."

Food retailing consultant Bill Bishop, of Willard Bishop Consulting, said Costco's decision shows how pervasive the pressure on consumers has become. He said more and more grocers are seeing their sales peak and fall based on when assistance benefits are distributed.

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