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March 23, 2012

Pennsylvania bans doctors from talking about dangers of fracking toxics

For Pennsylvania's Doctors, a Gag Order on Fracking Chemicals | Mother Jones
Under a new law, doctors in Pennsylvania can access information about chemicals used in natural gas extraction—but they won't be able to share it with their patients. A provision buried in a law passed last month is drawing scrutiny from the public health and environmental community, who argue that it will "gag" doctors who want to raise concerns related to oil and gas extraction with the people they treat and the general public. Pennsylvania is at the forefront in the debate over "fracking," the process by which a high-pressure mixture of chemicals, sand, and water are blasted into rock to tap into the gas. Recent discoveries of great reserves in the Marcellus Shale region of the state prompted a rush to development, as have advancements in fracking technologies. But with those changes have come a number of concerns from citizens about potential environmental and health impacts from natural gas drilling. There is good reason to be curious about exactly what's in those fluids. A 2010 congressional investigation revealed that Halliburton and other fracking companies had used 32 million gallons of diesel products, which include toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, in the fluids they inject into the ground. Low levels of exposure to those chemicals can trigger acute effects like headaches, dizziness, and drowsiness, while higher levels of exposure can cause cancer. Pennsylvania law states that companies must disclose the identity and amount of any chemicals used in fracking fluids to any health professional that requests that information in order to diagnosis or treat a patient that may have been exposed to a hazardous chemical. But the provision in the new bill requires those health professionals to sign a confidentiality agreement stating that they will not disclose that information to anyone else—not even the person they're trying to treat.

March 16, 2012

Virginia knows it has dozens of innocent men locked away in prison, why won't it free them?

This is fascinating. A former governor audited the DNA samples of a few dozen cases and found men who had been found guilty of rape exonerated by the evidence. He then ordered all the cases between 1973 and 1988 re-tested. Virginia *knows* they have innocent men locked away or suffering with felony convictions on their records. Why aren't they telling anyone? Bennett Barbour exonerated of rape in Virginia: how the state is botching the DNA retesting and notification of old cases - Slate Magazine
Years ago, Virginia authorities realized they were likely convicting innocent men. The state’s officials know their criminal justice system is riddled with errors. As they investigated the depth of the problem, they have found that indeed many more men—at least dozens, maybe more—might be exonerated using DNA tests. But the state’s authorities did not move quickly to suspend these sentences or contact the individuals or families involved. They did not publicize their findings. Indeed, they denied Freedom of Information Act requests that would have shed light on the problem. Rather, Virginia state officials appears to have devised a system of notifying current and former convicts that is almost guaranteed to lead to the fewest number of exonerations. How was it that Bennett Barbour’s DNA came to be tested several decades after the alleged rape? In September 2004, Mark Warner, then Virginia’s governor, ordered a random audit of 31 old criminal cases after a vast trove of biological evidence was discovered lying around in old case files saved by state forensic serologists. The testing of those 31 samples led to the exonerations of two convicted rapists. Warner, embarrassed by the revelations, then ordered in late 2005 that every sample obtained between 1973 and 1988 be rechecked. It amounted to thousands of files. It was a project intended to take 18 months at a cost of $1.4 million dollars. Now in its seventh year, the cost of the project hovers at $5 million. Nobody has any idea exactly how the Virginia Department of Forensics has conducted its work. Indeed, no one knows much about the specifics of the crime lab’s work at all. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, the state located approximately 800 biological samples of DNA that could be tested. Of those, only 214 were in sufficient condition to yield accurate results. Among these, more than 70 people—one commonly cited figure is 79—appear to have been excluded as the perpetrators of a crime. . . .