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THE MERRIMACK VALLEY DISASTER: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT OLD PIPES

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

 

September 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The events of last week in the Merrimack Valley were unfortunate by any measure. Something bad happened to the natural gas distribution system in parts of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover that resulted in dozens of homes being damaged or destroyed by explosions and fire, at least 25 people getting injured, and one person (tragically, an 18-year-old) getting killed. The leading theory for the conflagration is that it was triggered by a pressure spike in area gas pipes. But until the National Transportation and Safety Board concludes its investigation—which could take up to two years—we likely won’t know the cause of that spike. According to ThinkProgress, the Mass Department of Public Utilities will be conducting its own investigation, and Attorney General Maura Healey will oversee that effort to ensure transparency.

 

The company responsible, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts—a division of NiSource Inc. of Indiana—was so slow to respond to the crisis that Gov. Charlie Baker put Eversource Energy in charge of the cleanup effort.

 

But the magnitude of the disaster is just starting to sink in. About 8,500 homes were affected, and its occupants are being told that it will take months to replace the cast iron gas pipes under city streets and restore service. Pipes so old, and so prone to rusting, leaking, and failure, that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started pushing gas utilities nationwide to replace them over a decade ago, according to USA Today. Yet despite being allowed to recoup such costs—which run about $1 million a mile—from their customers, utilities like Columbia have been slow to complete the needed work. Meanwhile, the thousands of residents that officials have allowed to return to their homes are forced to stay in apartments and houses that use gas for heating and cooking… with the gas shut off for the foreseeable future. As winter approaches.

 

This highlights the danger of using methane, an obviously flammable and explosive gas, as a fuel source for homes and businesses. Notwithstanding being in continuous use at millions of sites in the United States for well over 150 years, “natural” gas is not as safe as many people believe. According to the New York Times, “Since 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution episodes have occurred across the country, causing 221 deaths and leaving nearly a thousand people injured. …” And the reasons for such episodes are not always found.

 

Perhaps it could not be otherwise, since America has allowed private companies to control the production and distribution of natural gas from the industry’s beginnings. Sure, we call those companies “public utilities” and tell ourselves that federal and state government regulate them. But, like all corporations answering to the siren call of the market, gas companies exist to make profits for their shareholders. To the exclusion of all other considerations—be they health, safety, environmental, or economic. Even though the small local gas companies of the 1800s have long since merged to become large and powerful combines, and even though they are allowed to be monopolies in the areas they control, they continue trying to save money on costs and make as much profit as regulators allow. Often quite a lot, since the phenomenon of “regulatory capture”—where a revolving door sending top staff back and forth between utilities and regulatory agencies generally assures that utilities have fat bottom lines—continues unabated. Including here in the Bay State. Whether utilities provide good service or bad.

 

Which is why National Grid—another one of the seven companies that have gas monopolies in parts of Massachusetts—is getting away with locking out 1,200 union gas workers who are trying to get a better contract for the difficult and dangerous work they do day in and day out. And why Columbia, which has already been dinged for recent safety issues in the regions of the Commonwealth gas infrastructure under its control, according to the Boston Globe, was allowed to continue business as usual until the Merrimack Valley fires brought international attention to the consequences of its malfeasance. Leading WGBH’s Jim Braude to wonder aloud on the Sept 17 episode of Greater Boston what would have happened if the gas network in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover had been owned by National Grid. A company currently trying to service its infrastructure with ill-trained scab labor—some of them managers with little or no field experience. The better to bust the labor unions that protect the livelihoods of its workers, and permanently replace them with un-unionized workers that will make its stockholders even bigger profits.

 

If all these developments were taking place in a period where there were no demonstrable environmental consequences for burning fossil fuels like natural gas, they would be dire enough. But, unfortunately, that is not the case. True, burning methane as an energy source only produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, there are so many methane leaks in the production and distribution of both oil and gas that any relative advantage to the environment that burning it provides is mostly erased, according to a Washington Post article on a key study in the journal Science. Given that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So even the 2.3 percent of methane estimated to be leaking away into the atmosphere before it can be burned is enough to ruin its oft-hyped potential as a more “green” fossil fuel source that can be leaned on for decades while carbon neutral energy sources like solar are brought online on an industrial scale. Not because we don’t have the technology to do so faster, but because energy multinationals don’t want clean energy systems deployed until they’ve made all the money they can make by burning carbon.

 

Worse still, more than half of the natural gas being used in the Greater Boston area is now coming from fracked gas, according to Boston University earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips in a BU Today article. Fracking (more correctly, hydraulic fracturing) is an incredibly destructive and ecologically disastrous method of squeezing oil and natural gas out of vast underground shelves of shale rock by injecting massive amounts of water and any number of often-toxic liquid chemicals into them. Direct environmental impacts include ground, water, air, and noise pollution in those areas unfortunate enough to have lots of shale. And the technique has even been known to trigger earthquakes. Phillips also explains that fracked methane contains many impurities that may be making consumers sick. But the indirect impacts are far more problematic because fracked gas and oil have flooded the planet’s fossil fuel markets with cheap product at exactly the time we need to move away from burning carbon.

 

In a better world, the Merrimack Valley disaster would be a clarion call to move more decisively toward clean energy alternatives—at least in the affected communities as a useful demonstration project. In advance of doing so swiftly across the country, and in every corner of the globe. But we are not in that world. We’re in a world where energy corporations control the politics of the US and many other countries to their own advantage. And they want to ensure that humanity squeezes every last possible joule of energy out of fossil fuels like natural gas before allowing alternatives to finally become the dominant mode of energy production. Regardless of the fact that doing so will very likely result in a planet that’s unable to sustain advanced human civilization, and perhaps unable to sustain human life at all. If the worst global warming scenarios are allowed to become reality.

 

That’s why I have repeatedly called—most recently in a column about Eversource, the utility called upon to “fix” the Merrimack Valley crisis—for bringing energy companies to heel on both the environmental and economic fronts by winning the huge political struggles necessary to make them all genuinely public utilities. With a mission to provide cheap, clean, green energy like advanced wind, solar, and hydroelectric (ideally not from environmentally destructive mega-dams) power to America, and phase out all fossil fuel production, distribution, and usage as soon as possible. If we could accomplish that sea change in our energy system, other countries would be likely to follow at speed. And we might actually stand a chance of minimizing the damage from global warming, already on display with increasingly alarming frequency in the form of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut.

 

So if you want to help the Merrimack Valley disaster victims, certainly donate to the best local charities you can find. But also join environmental groups like Mass Sierra Club, Resist the Pipeline, and HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) that are working to end the ability of privately owned energy utilities to harm communities like Lawrence in particular and our planet’s ecosphere in general going forward. Furthermore, be sure to make your house, condo, or apartment as energy efficient you can and do whatever you can do to convert your dwelling from reliance on burning fossil fuel to using genuinely clean energy sources. Every little improvement helps. Just remember, we won’t really be able to ensure our survival as a species until the fossil fuel megacorps are stopped. Cold.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

TOWNIE: CORPORATE TAX FABLES AND COMMUNITARIAN KIDDIE TABLES

CORPORATE TAX FABLES AND COMMUNITARIAN KIDDIE TABLES

 

December 12, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Big local corps quiet about huge profits to come from Repub tax scheme… except GE

An interesting WBUR article, “Largest Mass. Companies Are Mostly Silent On GOP Tax Plans,” asked the top 12 corporations in the Commonwealth to comment on the recently passed Republican scheme to transfer vast amounts of money from the working and middle classes to the rich and the corporations they control—euphemistically called “tax reform” in most of the major news media. Unsurprisingly, Bay State business leaders didn’t want to take time away from rubbing their hands together and cackling with glee about all the free money they’re going to get—choosing instead to remain mum for the moment.

 

But WBUR did get a statement out of General Electric after the Senate vote on the tax plan:

 

GE commends Congress and the White House for their commitment to comprehensive tax reform. GE supports the Senate tax reform plan because it would upgrade the U.S. to a territorial tax system, bring rates in line with other countries, and allow U.S. businesses and workers to compete fairly around the world, so it’s the quality of our products that determine whether we win global deals, and not tax differences.

 

No surprise GE would say that, since it will benefit tremendously from the drop in federal corporate tax from 35 percent to only 20 percent. But it will also get to repatriate as much of the lucre it’s been offshoring as it would like at a one-time tax rate of merely 12 percent. And now that the feds are “upgrading” to a “territorial tax system,” the company will make even more money. Why? Because a territorial tax system means that all the profits multinationals sock away in offshore tax havens will be taxed at a rate of zero percent. You read that correctly. Nada. No taxes at all on foreign profits.

 

Currently, companies like GE stash profits in other countries because, although they have been technically taxed on all profits—foreign and domestic—at the base 35 percent rate (basically a total joke since there are so many corporate tax loopholes that big companies like GE actually end up with a negative tax rate some years, but let’s play along for the purpose of this explanation), they are only required to pay those taxes when they “repatriate” the money back to the US. Which has often been never thanks to a complicated system called “transfer pricing” where corporations book profits in low tax countries, and take deductions in the US and other higher tax countries. And then borrow cheap money on the strength of their foreign bank accounts to make more profits.

 

The result will be even more offshoring of both money and jobs by megacorps. Because why would a company like GE not move more of both away from the US if foreign profits are  tax free—without nearly as much of the tricky accounting that’s currently needed to play the transfer pricing game? Just really bad news for Mass workers. And for boosters of the GE Boston deal. And anyone who thinks big companies like Amazon are going to have much incentive to add lots of jobs anywhere in the US going forward.

 

BPDA “PLAN: Glover’s Corner” protested in Dorchester

As the neoliberal capture of the government and the public sector continues apace, earnest technocrats at the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA, formerly known as the BRA) still find it necessary to play the communitarian “public meeting” game when trying to sell bad deals that advance corporate interests to the working families who are all too often the targets of such deals.

 

Communitarianism being the decades-old fad where institutions representing the rich and powerful work hard to make sure that “every constituency has a seat at the table” when they want to do something that will harm those constituencies. But, of course, the power relations remain unchanged. The rich and powerful remain rich and powerful. Everyone else does not. And “the table” isn’t the real table—where bankers, CEOs, and top government leaders meet to make policy decisions happen. Usually behind closed doors. It’s basically a kiddie table where regular people can pretend they have some impact on a process that’s over before it begins.

 

Which is why it’s nice to see that housing activists with the Dorchester Not For Sale coalition decided to crash a recent BPDA transit-oriented public meeting on its “PLAN: Glover’s Corner”—which is slated, among other things, to add hundreds of units of housing that will be mostly unaffordable to current Dot residents.

 

According to the Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter, the Dorchester activists are taking a page from JP and Roxbury housing activists with the Keep It 100% for Egleston coalition who protested the larger BPDA PLAN: JP/Rox—which might ultimately involve thousands of units of new housing—until the city relented and mandated that 36 percent of the new units (and 40 percent overall, including units currently permitted for construction) must be affordable.

 

The definition of “affordable” for the JP/Rox plan area is pegged to percentages of the average median income of the Boston region set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). So, for example, according to an August Spare Change News article, some “affordable” units being rented and sold as part of the 3200 Washington complex are being offered to households making 70 percent of the region’s average median income, and some to households making 100 percent.

 

But JP and Roxbury advocates have continued to protest PLAN: JP/Rox even after it was made official because its definition of “affordable” remains too high.

 

Spare Change continues, “For the Boston metropolitan region, the average median income is just over $100,000, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income for all of Jamaica Plain is $76,968. However, households within the plan’s range have an average income of just over $50,000.”

 

According to a March Bay State Banner article, activists three goals for the plan are “to deepen the affordability level on designated affordable housing units so that they are attainable by households making less than $35,000 per year; increase goals for the portion of new housing that’s designated as affordable from 36 percent to 55 percent; and require the conversion of 250 market-rate units into affordable units..”

 

So while their activism raised the amount of “affordable” housing the BPDA planned to offer in the deal from 30 percent to 36 percent, it’s not going to help many people currently living in or near the affected neighborhoods to stay in the area unless the definition of affordable is changed to reflect economic reality. Given that fact, Mayor Marty Walsh’s much-vaunted progress on getting more affordable housing built on his watch is based largely on smoke and mirrors because much of it remains unaffordable to the people who need it most.

 

The Dorchester activists, meanwhile, are demanding that the BPDA accept a six-month moratorium on PLAN: Glover’s Corner, use the extra time to provide more data to the community on the plan, and do things like provide childcare at public meetings to allow more locals to attend.

 

Thus far, the BPDA is blowing off such demands and trying to plow forward without significant changes to its plan. Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, who attended the Glover’s Corner meeting, agreed with the BPDA in a recent Spare Change article, saying “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a valid request.”

 

Seems the fight for housing justice is far from over in Dorchester.

 

Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

TOWNIE: TAX DELINQUENT, TAX GIVEAWAY

 

Crutchfield sues Mass over online taxes, unions protest Siemens

 

Online retailer tries to duck sales taxes

For a long time, the internet was like the Wild West for online sales. Companies sold products to consumers all over the US, and the feds and many states were slow to tax those transactions. You know, because “innovation goooood” and all that. On Oct 1, Massachusetts finally started collecting its standard 6.25 percent sales tax on internet sales from out-of-state companies with 100 or more online transactions last year. And last week, according to the Salem News, “online car stereo and electronics retailer, Crutchfield Corp., says Massachusetts’ policy violates interstate commerce laws and is therefore unenforceable.”

 

Why? In its legal challenge the company is basically saying: You collect taxes on us, but not on other companies who might do the same business by other means. Virginia-based Crutchfield also says it’s covered by a Virginia law designed to protect businesses in that state from having to pay taxes in other states where the business has no brick-and-mortar presence. Yet the Commonwealth has already argued that under a 1992 Supreme Court decision, having “cookies” stored on consumer’s computers from companies like Crutchfield counts as a physical presence in the Bay State. The Salem News also notes that NetChoice—a group representing online retailers like eBay and PayPal—is arguing “that the Baker administration doesn’t have the authority to tax businesses with no actual presence in Massachusetts.”

 

What’s most fascinating about these developments is the lengths big online retailers will go to avoid paying very standard state taxes (and, of course, federal taxes) in places where they do a significant amount of business. Any corporate victory on this front translates to millions of dollars being effectively stolen from the public that could be used to pay for social goods like education, housing, environmental, and welfare programs. Just what we don’t need.

 

German multinational faces protests over job promises, tax breaks

Walpole is a town with a population of 24,000 at the 2010 Census, but it’s punching above its weight in lavishing tax breaks on the huge German conglomerate Siemens. And area labor unions—led by the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District (Metro BTC)—are not happy. According to Wicked Local Walpole, hundreds of residents and area union members turned out for an Oct 19 protest on Walpole Common to demand that Siemens Healthineers, the goofily renamed healthcare division of the company (formerly Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics Inc.), follow through on its 2016 promises to the community.

 

In March of that year, the Walpole town meeting representatives voted 76-51 in favor of giving tax breaks worth millions between 2018 and 2037 to Siemens—an average savings of 75 percent on its property tax for the 20 years, according to the Brockton Enterprise—in support of the $300 million expansion of its existing plant there. The company said it would add 400-700 “permanent jobs” to its existing workforce of about 700 by 2026.

 

But at the recent rally, Walpole Selectman David Salvatore told the crowd that Siemens has “only hired 32 Walpole residents” to date out of the 170 jobs the company says it has created since the deal was cut. In an earlier Boston Globe article—released just after the town meeting vote on the agreement—he had provided more background: “The benefits of this project are regional, and the burden is local. Of the 620 current employees at the Siemens plant, a mere 33 are Walpole residents; most are not even from Norfolk County, and 83 are from Rhode Island.” So, Walpole is putting a bunch of money on the table for a big company that has thus far only created about 60 jobs for town residents.

 

Union leaders, according to an Oct 16 press release, are angry that Siemens has not committed to using union labor to build the 300,000-square-foot expansion of the factory or to hiring more local workers—especially since it’s getting such a large tax break. Their pressure campaign is calling for “slowing down the slated expansion for further community input and review.” One would think that a company with a market capitalization of $109.8 billion in May, according to Forbes, can afford to work things out with its critics. But it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out, regardless.

 

Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

TOWNIE: A WORM’S EYE VIEW OF THE MASS POWER STRUCTURE

Students at rally at Boston City Hall by NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Students at rally at Boston City Hall by NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

From the guy that brings you Apparent Horizon

October 18, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The rich and powerful interests that control Massachusetts politics and the state economy have their fingers in every conceivable pie. So numerous are their projects that it’s difficult for most news outlets to keep track of them, let alone cover them all. Yet it’s critical for our democracy that they be covered. Which is why I’m launching Townie—a regular news column that will provide short takes on all the elite wheeling and dealing that most people never hear about.

 

Business Organizations Sue to Down “Millionaire’s Tax” Referendum

In an era when taxes continue to be slashed for wealthy people and corporations as government social programs are starved for funds, one would think that the Fair Share Amendment (a.k.a. “millionaire’s tax”) proposed by the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition of religious, labor, and community organizations would be a no-brainer. The idea is slated to be put in front of Massachusetts voters as a binding referendum question in November 2018. If passed, it would amend the state constitution to add a 4 percent tax on top of the Bay State’s infamously inadequate 5.1 percent flat income tax for all households earning $1 million or more. The money collected will be mandated to fund public schools, transportation, and road maintenance. All sectors that really need the money. And best of all, only 19,500 families would have to pay in 2019 if the tax goes into effect—0.5 percent of all filers.

Well apparently any tax is a bad tax in the eyes of the Commonwealth’s “business community.” No matter how many people it would help, and how painless it would be for the tiny number of 0.5 percenters. So, according to an Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) press release,  the leaders of five pro-corporate organizations are trying to torpedo the referendum before it can be voted on by filing a lawsuit against it at the Supreme Judicial Court. The plaintiffs are: Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Inc. (MHTC); Christopher Carlozzi, Massachusetts state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB); Richard Lord, president and chief executive officer of AIM; Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF); and, Daniel O’Connell, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership (MACP).

They claim that the referendum language is “riddled with constitutional flaws,” with the MTHC’s Anderson remarking that “Amending the Constitution to achieve taxing and spending by popular vote is just a terrible idea, and could undo much of the good work that Massachusetts has done in terms of creating a successful economic climate.” But no matter what kinds of arguments they try to make, it seems like what they’re most afraid of is democracy. Let’s see how far they get with the SJC.

 

About That Opioid Epidemic…

More proof that the rising number of deaths from opioid abuse has more to do with corporate greed than any personal failings of individuals suckered into addiction by pliant doctors colluding with pharma sales reps. And also that those few drug companies that pay any penalty at all for their role in destroying communities across the state, get little more than a slap on the wrist. According to a press release by the office of Mass Attorney General Maura Healey, “An opioid manufacturer will pay $500,000 to resolve allegations that it engaged in a widespread scheme to unlawfully market its fentanyl spray and paid kickbacks to providers to persuade them to prescribe the product…  Insys Therapeutics, Inc. misleadingly marketed Subsys, a narcotic fentanyl product that is sprayed under a patient’s tongue.” The money will be used to “help fund the AG’s prevention, education and treatment efforts.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 30-50 times more powerful than heroin. The company claimed its spray version of the drug was useful for treating “minor” pain in non-cancer patients—despite the fact that the FDC had only approved the drug for use in more severe pain in cancer patients. It then pushed its sales staff to give kickbacks to doctors in the form of “fees paid to speak to other health care providers about the product.”

 

Boondoggle in Progress?

When a public college gets involved in land deals, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on. Especially when that college is UMass—a troubled multi-campus institution whose leadership would rather engage in property speculation than fight the legislature for more money for public higher education.

In 2010, the school’s independent development wing, the UMass Building Authority (UMBA), bought the former Bayside Expo Center property after its owners went into foreclosure. According to the Dorchester Reporter, in August, the UMBA issued “a Request for Information (RFI) as it seeks out ideas for the ‘highest and best use’ of the former Bayside Expo Center site on Columbia Point in Dorchester with an eye toward transforming the 20-acre site into a ‘modern-day Harvard Square.’”

Last week, the newspaper reported that 16 developers have responded to the university’s request, including: Accordia Partners; American Campus Communities; Beacon Capital Partners; Bracken Development; Capstone Development Partners LLC & Samuels & Associates; Corcoran Jennison & BTUHWF Building Corp; Core Investment Inc.; Hunt Development Group, LLC & Drew Company Inc.; The HYM Investment Group, LLC; LendLease; Lincoln Property Company; Lupoli Companies; Rhino Capital & Ad Meliora; SKANSKA; University Student Living; and Waterstone Properties Group Inc. The Reporter says the UMass Building Authority “hopes to leverage public-private partnerships toward the massive mixed-use project.” Which usually means big public giveaways to corporations. One way or the other. Stay tuned.

Townie is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.