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Pieces from here and there

Some recent, some older, stories beneath are among my newspaper digging pieces from over the years.

"Inspiration gives no warnings."

                                                         Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As rail deaths mounted, industry stymied life-saving technology  (click to read)
Connecticut Post and other Hearst newspapers June, 2014

WASHINGTON -- On a Connecticut summer evening 45 years ago, Edward May was operating a northbound commuter train in Darien when the lights of another train suddenly appeared on the tracks, 600 feet away and closing fast.

It was Penn Central commuter train N-48. Its engineer, running late, disregarded a message to yield to May's train.

"He just kept coming at me," May, 82, of Waterford, recently recalled.

The two trains, each traveling 30 mph, collided with such force that N-48 telescoped halfway through May's locomotive. Three crew members and one passenger died and 43 passengers were injured.

Rescuers spent five hours cutting May from the wreckage.

The engineer who struck May's train had known about the order to pull onto a side track; a copy of it was found on his body. Investigators never learned why he failed to yield.

By rail-disaster standards, the Aug. 20, 1969 crash on the New Canaan Line wasn't the most tragic or horrific of the era. But it stands as a milepost in rail safety history: the beginning of the National Transportation Safety Board's drive to install technology to remove human error from railroad operation.

After investigating the Darien wreck, the NTSB issued its first formal recommendation to the Federal Railroad Administration to "study the feasibility of requiring a form of automatic train control at points where passenger trains are required to meet other trains."

Positive Train Control, as the technology would become known, monitors and controls train movements with a digital communications network that links locomotives with control centers. It is designed to prevent collisions by automatically slowing or even stopping trains that go too fast, miss a stop signal, enter a zone with maintenance workers on the track, or encounter other dangers.

Indisputably, PTC saves lives. "The equivalent of air traffic controllers," U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, said of PTC.

A Hearst Newspapers investigation found that the NTSB's push for PTC encountered a long and twisting road.

The rail industry resisted implementing the system to preserve profits and the FRA went along, backing the industry it regulated by arguing against the safety standard and ignoring repeated NTSB recommendations to mandate its implementation, the Hearst review found.

Over the decades, the NTSB classified 139 crashes on America's rails as PTC-preventable. Those wrecks resulted in 288 deaths, 6,500 injuries and nearly $300 million in property damages, federal safety records show.

The Spuyten Duyvil Metro-North crash in the Bronx the day before I went to work at Hearst triggered my year-long dig into rail safety.

"The Chinese are laughing at us." San Francisco Chronicle -- 2014


SAN FRANCISCO -- Gilroy, Calif. calls itself "the garlic capital of the world." These days, not so much.

In little more than a year, a single Chinese company has flooded the U.S. market with 60 million pounds of garlic, almost half of it through the Port of Oakland, in a scheme to avoid penalties that protect domestic growers.

The dumping of Chinese garlic has severely hurt the U.S. industry. Half of California's biggest garlic packers have disappeared in the past decade, says industry leader Bill Christopher of Gilroy.

The Chinese operation unraveled in December, thanks to detective work by customs agents. It was a rare success for U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which is struggling to contain fraud in the flood of all sorts of Chinese goods arriving at U.S. ports.

Foreign companies and their partners on U.S. soil have routinely flouted U.S. trade law, evading penalties designed to protect domestic industries, a Hearst Newspapers investigation has found.



Discoveries raise doubts about whether the speed of global trade has outpaced the ability to keep food safe.

San Antonio Express-News; Houston Chronicle -- 2015


BAYTOWN, Texas -- Worrying about bills and plummeting shrimp prices, Dwayne Harrison stopped to apply for a mowing job one morning recently before dropping his nets in the Houston Ship Channel.

       The 65-cents-a-pound he was getting last week for small, head-on wild shrimp is one-third the price of a year ago, and less than his catch brought in 1998, the year he bought his 50-foot vessel, Angel Lady.

       Harrison, 51, is among Gulf shrimpers who say they’re leaving the business or are barely afloat, and many blame imports, which make up more than 90 percent of the shrimp market in the United States. Last year, imports rose by 143 million pounds and are up another 2 percent in 2015.

       While driven to the brink, shrimpers in Texas also are driven to anger by the indifference of American consumers buying foreign, farm-raised shrimp that might be tainted with antibiotics.

       “In those restaurants,” Harrison pointed out, “people will be watching our boats come in while being served shrimp from half way around the world that are fed antibiotics to keep them alive.”

       Foreign competition and the rise of aquaculture to fill the world’s seafood needs are familiar stories. But illegal antibiotics in farm-raised Asian shrimp is a lesser-known story, one that Gulf shrimpers have begun telling.

       Food and Drug Administration records suggest they have reason to sound warnings.


"It's harder to make up some Frankenstein scenario where this is terrible when the outcome of not doing it is that people die." San Francisco Chronicle 2014.


WASHINGTON -- At a secret location among the vineyards of California's Central Coast, a plot of genetically engineered corn is producing proteins for industrial and pharmaceutical uses, including an experimental vaccine for hepatitis B.

      The altered corn is growing with federal approval 100 feet from a steelhead stream in San Luis Obispo County, in designated critical habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog. Agriculture Department inspectors have reported two "incidents" at the site, including conventional corn sprouting in a 50-foot fallow zone, but the findings did not rise to the level of a fine or even to a formal notice of noncompliance for the company that planted it, Applied Biotechnology Institute Inc.

       Details of Applied Biotechnology's inspections and hundreds of other field trials with genetically modified plants were obtained by Hearst Newspapers under Freedom of Information laws. The inspection reports and other Agriculture Department records present a picture of vast, swiftly expanding outdoor experimentation and industry-friendly oversight of those experiments.

       The founder and president of Applied Biotechnology, John A. Howard, previously founded another company that was permanently banned from trials of genetically modified organisms - GMOs - after creating such contaminated messes in the Midwest that a half-million bushels of soybeans and more than 150 acres of corn had to be destroyed.

"Very well, I will marry you. As long as you promise to not make me eat eggplant."

                                                               Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“The decision to do this project in-the-wet was a disaster...The dynamic at play here is reputation."

                                                                                                                                  Michael Toohey

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2013

OLMSTED, Ill. • Last December, a 5,000-ton concrete shell named SS5 was in the water ready to be dropped into the Ohio River like a giant Lego piece by the world's largest catamaran barge. 

     Then the river rose. The swift waters threatened to sabotage dam building and endanger divers working 50 feet down with 3-inch visibility.

So the Army Corps of Engineers canceled the operation, yet another in a string of setbacks that has plagued construction of Olmsted Locks and Dam for more than 20 years.

     “It was heartbreaking to make that call,” recalled Brad Bradley, resident engineer at Olmsted.

     Eight months later, SS5 remains perched on the shoreline along with partially built shells, evidence of a failure that haunts taxpayers and ripples across the nation’s inland waterway system.

     A Post-Dispatch review of thousands of pages of documents and more than two dozen interviews reveal a project plagued by cost overruns, delays and engineering challenges stemming largely from the corps’ stubborn insistence on an innovative construction method that met its match in the unruly Ohio River.

     A project that should have been completed years ago has quadrupled in cost because of management failures for which the Corps of Engineers has yet to be held accountable.

     And the price tag keeps rising.

     In 1988, Congress authorized spending $775 million to replace two 1920s-era Ohio River dams 17 miles from the Mississippi River, at the busiest inland shipping hub in America.

     A quarter-century later, the projected cost has ballooned to $3.1 billion.

San Diego Tribune-McClatchy News Service 2007


LAGOS, NIGERIA -- In this cyber-crime capital of the world, vendors sell used computers that still hold private and revealing files about Americans.

Old computers from the United States are sold at a market in Lagos, Nigeria. Some may still contain personal information from the previous owner.

Computers from California tell tales of students with learning disabilities. Many scored low on tests. One suffered a brain injury as a child, and another ran with gangs, according to school records that include names, birth dates and family details.

More computer files, these from an elementary school in Virginia, contain what a security expert called “the Holy Grail” for identity thieves seeking to score: teachers' Social Security numbers, addresses and phone numbers.

All of this sensitive information was discovered in this unlikely place, where discarded computers are resold.

Unbeknown to their former owners, tens of thousands of discarded American computers are shipped to Nigeria and other developing nations each month.

In an ongoing investigation into the fate of electronic waste, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch bought several old American computers that had been exported to Nigeria. Computer experts in the United States later analyzed their contents.

They contained school records, private messages, photographs, financial information and other revealing materials discarded by people who were taken aback when later told of the newspaper's findings. (Read more.)


In this Nigerian computer market, some fellows were eager to find what Americans left on their hard-drives.

A goat wondered what I find so interesting in a Lagos dump.

Dangerous Chinese imports flood U.S. markets
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 3, 2008

BEARDSTOWN, Ill. — On the last Saturday in April, Amber Donnals was sitting on her porch when she heard an
explosion, followed by screams.
She turned to see her son, Bryan, 6, running toward her, his clothes on fire, and flames shooting up at
the rear of the Donnalses' mobile home.

He'd been riding his newly minted, Chinese-made ATV — sold "to be used by children age 6 to 12" — when
suddenly it sped up and raced out of control, according to an account by the boy and his family.
The red, 110cc four-wheeler barely missed a propane tank before crashing into the trailer and catching
fire. Bryan spent five weeks in a pediatric burn unit at Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati
after he was transferred by jet from St. Louis Children's Hospital. The family was told that he would need
skin grafts and regular treatment for many years.

The accident with the all-terrain vehicle was one of many occurring in the United States almost every day
— nearly 150,000 accidents involving injuries yearly.
But the Donnalses' accident in Illinois' Fayette County, about 80 miles east of St. Louis, represents a
new threat: the arrival of hundreds of thousands of cheaply made Chinese-made ATVs, an import flood
transforming a $3.5 billion industry and challenging an overburdened U.S. regulatory system that relies on
voluntary standards for safety.
(Read more)

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