Chemicals At Flooded Texas Plant In Danger Of Exploding

Trucks make their way through flood waters on a road leading to Arkema Inc. in Crosby, Texas, Wednesday. Chemicals at the plant are in danger of exploding because refrigeration is out due to Hurricane Harvey.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

A chemical plant just northeast of Houston is at risk of explosion following the failure of refrigeration equipment which is needed to cool the volatile compounds produced there.

The CEO of Arkema Inc., Rich Rowe, said Wednesday the Crosby, Texas, facility is flooded by 6 feet of water and that primary and back-up power has failed. Without cooling systems, the risk of fire and explosion grows ever more serious. “The high water and lack of power leave us with no way to prevent it,” Rowe said.

The residential community surrounding the facility has been evacuated in a 1.5-mile radius. According to the EPA, nearly 4,000 people live within a 3-mile radius. The chemical facility too is abandoned since the last 11 employees who’d remained to try to keep the products from igniting were pulled out. The chemicals have already warmed to a point where their volatility prevents an effort to move them. Rowe said, “We’re really blocked from taking any meaningful action.”

The plant manufactures highly combustible organic peroxides. They’re used in a wide variety of applications from agriculture to manufacturing. They’re used in making epoxy resins for glass-reinforced plastics like fiberglass. They’re also used to make explosives.

Locating chemical and fertilizer plants next to residential areas is not all that uncommon in Texas. In 2013, the West Fertilizer Company in the small town of West, just south of Dallas exploded, killing 12 first responders and three others and injuring 160. Property damage to the surrounding neighborhoods was extensive. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives eventually ruled that fire was deliberately set. The water poured onto the blaze by the volunteer firemen likely facilitated the explosion which blew up with the force of between 7.5 and 10 tons of TNT.

Like many but not all of these volatile facilities, West Fertilizer Company was built in what was initially isolated agrarian land. But as Texas grew in the ensuing decades, the town of West expanded toward and eventually around the fertilizer plant.

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New Hurricane Index Predicted Harvey Would Be A Monster, Say Scientists

Hurricane Harvey traveled slowly, which allowed the storm to drop enormous quantities of rain. Here the roof of a gas station sits in flood waters in Aransas Pass, Texas, on Saturday.

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Eric Gay/AP

Harvey approached the Texas coast as a monster Category 4 hurricane, almost as powerful as they come. But most of the damage has come after it calmed down to a mere tropical storm — from rain.

Scientists say the traditional measure of hurricane strength doesn’t tell you much about how damaging it will be. Now they’re proposing a new way to do that.

Hurricanes come in numbers — Categories 1 through 5 — as part of the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength. It measures wind speed over short periods of time, and the faster the wind, the higher the category.

But it doesn’t say much about how long strong winds will last and how that “wind field” will move.

A new scale, the Cyclone Damage Potential index, does. And it predicted that Harvey would be very bad. “I would say it’s in the top 10 percent of historical events,” says James Done, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. He helped develop this new index. “The index measures wind speed,” he says, “but also how long those strong winds blow for. So it incorporates the size of the storm and how fast it’s moving forward.”

Harvey was ambling along at about walking speed for a long time, which allowed it to dump trillions of gallons of water on Houston.

By focusing more on how far and wide winds blow and for how long, the new index tells a much more complete story than the traditional scale. “It has a stronger relationship to basically how long the storm is going to stick around for,” Done says, and if it’s going to rain for a longer time.

Done helped develop the new index for the insurance industry. They want better predictions about how much storms will cost them. “They can see that for storms that stall like Harvey, that bring strong winds for a long period, that can actually drive up losses,” Done says.

Done notes that ultimate damage losses also depend on other things, like how much property is in harm’s way in a particular place. But he says the new index gives a more complete picture of what a storm can do.

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FACT CHECK: 4 Claims From Trump's Tax Speech

President Trump pitches tax overhaul at an event at the Loren Cook Co. in Springfield, Mo., on Wednesday.

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President Trump pitched a tax overhaul package on Wednesday in a speech that was heavy on politicking and light on the particulars.

Trump’s tax policy ideas are still sketchy — when pitched in April, they amounted to one page of bullet points. In his Wednesday remarks, he didn’t add much more detail beyond the broad strokes, saying he wants lower rates for the middle class, a simpler tax code, lower corporate rates and for companies to “bring back [their] money” from overseas to the U.S.

In his speech in Springfield, Mo., though, he said a few things that were misleading or could use more context. Here are four fact checks:

1. Economic growth rate

“We just announced that we hit 3 percent in GDP. Just came out. And on a yearly basis, as you know, the last administration during an eight-year period never hit 3 percent. So we’re really on our way.”

He’s right that on Wednesday, the Commerce Department announced that the economy grew at a 3 percent rate in the second quarter. This was an upward revision from a previously announced 2.6 percent (and will still be revised again).

But he is making it sound as if growth during his administration is already appreciably faster than it was during the Obama administration. That’s not true. Quarterly GDP growth during the Obama presidency did hit 3 percent several times.

There’s a technicality here, though: Trump used the phrase “on a yearly basis.” If he’s talking about calendar years, he’s right, but barely. According to Commerce Department data, annual GDP growth during Obama’s presidency hit a high of 2.9 percent in 2015 — so, just shy of 3 percent. But then, if he is measuring any given 12-month period, he’s not right; year-over-year GDP growth was at times over 3 percent during the Obama presidency.

Either way, that 3 percent rate he pulled out is how annual growth would look ifgrowth from the second quarter were to hold for a full year. Reporting the GDP rate in this annual way makes it easier to show whether growth was faster in, say, this quarter than it was in prior years. But once again, it still has that hypothetical aspect to it.

And that leads to a more important point here: Many economists believe that sustained 3 percent growth, like Trump says he can help create, is unlikely. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget earlier this year tried to game out how that kind of GDP growth could happen. Its outlook was not rosy.

“By our estimates, returning capital growth, productivity growth, and prime-age labor force participation to where they were in the 1990s would result in 2.9-percent growth,” they wrote. And getting to those levels, they added, would be “an unlikely scenario given recent trends.”

In other words, while Trump is celebrating this one quarter of growth, seeing it quarter after quarter after quarter would be a surprise.

2. Comparing U.S. growth with other countries’

“You look at other countries and you look at what their GDP is, they’re unhappy when it’s 7, 8, 9. And I speak to them, leaders of the countries — ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Not well. Not well.’ ‘Why?’ ‘GDP is down to 7 percent.’ And I’m saying, ‘We were hitting 1 percent just a number of months ago.’ “

We can’t fact-check Trump here in the strictest sense (that is, we don’t really know what these other leaders are telling him), but we can check the assumption that we can compare the U.S.’s growth rate with other countries’. The answer: It doesn’t work like that.

“The countries that are growing at 7 percent are emerging market economies like China or India or other emerging market economies,” said Nick Lardy, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

He explained that these countries have what some economists call a “latecomer advantage” — an additional lift that comes from starting out behind other countries. For example, he pointed to China, which has grown quickly in part because of foreign firms coming in and setting up shop there. So when Volkswagen sets up a plant in China, it’s bringing in processes and technologies from the outside.

“They can do joint ventures or have foreign firms come in, they can license technology, they can improve labor productivity,” he explained.

This is what helps a country like China or India have an economic growth rate of around 7 percent.

3. A “simple” tax code

“We need a tax code that is simple, fair and easy to understand. And that means getting rid of loopholes and complexity that primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans and special interests. Our last major tax rewrite was 31 years ago. It eliminated dozens of loopholes and special interest tax rates, reduced the number of tax brackets from 15 to two, and lowered tax rates for individuals and businesses. Since then, tax laws have tripled in size.”

The Reagan tax plan, approved by Congress in 1986, did cut back on loopholes, and it did cut the number of brackets down to two.

But there’s one important point buried in here, and it’s that bit about the number of tax brackets and setting rates. Trump said he wants to make the tax code “simple, fair, and easy to understand.” Brackets and rates are not what make the tax code byzantine (“fair” is subjective, and we’re staying out of that here).

“It’s a very mild form of simplification,” said William Gale, co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, in an interview with NPR in 2015. “The real complication in the system is in the tax base, not in the rate structure. Figuring out how you calculate capital gains or figuring out whether you’re eligible for the [earned income tax credit for lower-income Americans], given the child rules — once you’ve got that, then you just plug in the rates.”

The brackets-simplicity argument is one Americans are bound to hear more as Congress debates a tax code overhaul; politicians try to draw this connection often. But slicing down deductions — and potentially upsetting some groups of voters — could be a tougher sell.

4. The corporate tax rate

“Today we are still taxing our businesses at 35 percent. And it’s way more than that. And think of it — in some cases way above 40 percent when you include state and local taxes in various states. The United States is now behind France, behind Germany, behind Canada, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and many other nations also.”

The top federal corporate tax rate is indeed 35 percent, and in some states, corporate tax rates can push that rate higher. In Iowa, the top corporate rate is 12 percent, and in five other states plus the District of Columbia, the rate is 9 percent or higher, according to the right-leaning Tax Foundation. (One could quibble with “way higher,” then, but in general, Trump is right on this.)

That’s what puts the U.S. “behind” other countries, in Trump’s estimation. Except what matters is the effective tax rate. Deductions and credits help bring U.S. companies’ tax rates below what they would otherwise pay. The effective tax rate for U.S. corporations is only around 18.6 percent, which is on the high end compared with other advanced economies but not unusually high — it’s a few percentage points below Japan, a few above Germany, and right in line with the U.K.

And those tax rates vary widely from firm to firm: A recent report found that out of 258 profitable Fortune 500 companies, 39 percent paid zero corporate taxes in at least one year between 2008 and 2015.


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Episode 791: Tips From Spies

Spies, and handbags?

Talking to spies is hard! You’ll ask an innocuous question and they just clam up. But, after interrogating spies and a spy reporter, we teased out a few bits of advice that you might find useful.

The thing is, real spies don’t like car chases and rooftop shootouts. What they want to do is fly below the radar, stay out of trouble, and always have a getaway. But pulling that off takes a lot of training and practice. It means keeping your wits when everyone is panicking, staying cool under pressure, knowing how to size up a complicated problem in a second.

On this episode we learn how to think like a spy, how to spot danger like a spy and how to drive like a spy, or at least park like a spy at the grocery store.

Music: “Hustle and Bustle” “The Hustler” and “Black Surf Duel.” Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts or PocketCast.

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11,000 U.S. Troops Are In Afghanistan, Thousands More Than Previously Acknowledged

A U.S. Marine from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Alpha Company looks out as an evening storm gathers above an outpost near Kunjak, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

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Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters/Viking

A Pentagon spokesperson said today that 11,000 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan, thousands more than the previously acknowledged 8,400.

The 8,400 number did not include troops on temporary assignment, according to the Pentagon. Acknowledging the higher number is a matter of “transparency,” which Defense Secretary James Mattis is demanding as the U.S. prepares to deploy more forces to Afghanistan.

Pentagon press secretary Dana White said in a briefing, “The secretary has determined we must simplify our accounting methodology and improve the public’s understanding of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan.”

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports the practice of not including troops on temporary assignment began in the Obama administration, which had set an upper limit of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at 8,400.

A defense official told Bowman the accounting method allowed for more flexibility in meeting temporary needs.

Pentagon officials say they still anticipate deploying approximately 4,000 more troops as part of President Trump’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan. announced last week.

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Salmon Fisher: Spill Is Dangerous And 'We Shouldn't Have To Deal With It'

Aboard the fishing vessel Marathon, Nicholas Cooke (left) and Nathan Cultee unload 16 farm-raised Atlantic salmon into a container in Bellingham, Wash.

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Megan Farmer/KUOW

The state of Washington is calling all fishermen to catch unlimited farmed Atlantic salmon with no size or weight limits after a net pen broke last week, allowing thousands of the non-native fish to escape into the open ocean.

The pen, in the state’s northwestern San Juan Islands, contained about 305,000 Atlantic salmon, and is owned by Cooke Aquaculture.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources says it is working with other state agencies, local Indian tribes and Cooke Aquaculture to discover an accurate timeline of events as well as the scale of the release, but estimates that 4,000 to all 305,000 fish have escaped.

The accidental release is threatening the native wild Pacific salmon population.

NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with Riley Starks, a wild salmon fisherman in Washington state, about the invasive Atlantic salmon spill. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you go about collecting 300,000 fish that are just swimming in the ocean?

The Atlantics don’t act like other fish. They’re used to swimming in a pen around in circles and used to getting feed from above. So they tend to want to stay near shore, and the fishers figured out that you just trap them near shore.

When you pull in these farmed Atlantic salmon, can you tell whether you’ve caught one of those or one of the native wild Pacific salmon?

Yeah, it’s pretty obvious. They’re a different animal. They have large spots, they have a long body, kind of a hammerhead, their tails are streamlined, they’re scarred by rubbing up against the net pen. They’re not strong swimmers at all.

What’s the harm if they do get out in to the wild population?

Well, right now the timing is particularly bad because all the native wilds are going up to spawn, so these farmed salmon are just following them up there. And they’ve been fed antibiotics, they have diseases. They were being treated for yellow mouth disease when they spilled, and the first ones we caught definitely had yellow mouth. Pharmaceutical pollution and diseases is the worst of it. But also competition for food up the river and competition for spawning, like when a wild Chinook goes up and lays their eggs, an Atlantic could come right behind it and eat the eggs or sweep them away. So it’s a dangerous situation and we shouldn’t have to deal with it. We think these fish should not be in the environment. We don’t think they’re safe for consumption.

But these are fish that are being raised for consumption. These are the kinds of fish that wind up in grocery stores, right?

Well, they do, but they have to go through regimens of antibiotics and then get all of that out of their system before they can be sold. We don’t know where they were in their regimen of antibiotics.

What are you doing with the fish when you catch them?

We’re bringing them in to Home Port Seafood in Bellingham to be frozen and preserved, but not put onto any market. They have to be disposed of properly.

Are commercial fisherman putting of their own livelihood — the time they would be spending fishing for salmon that they could sell at the market — to clean this up?

Yeah, that’s the company’s response plan. It’s like an oil tanker rupturing, spilling oil everywhere and the company calling out citizens to bring their boats so they can take the oil home! It’s just irresponsible, and it’s shortsighted, and it shouldn’t be allowed.

What does it look like on the scene where these fishermen are trying to retrieve the salmon that have escaped?

It’s sort of a carnival atmosphere. There are small boats — mostly small boats. But you know, fishermen love to fish. And so there is a certain sort of joy in it, but it’s like a Fellini movie, there’s the overshadowing despair that underlies it.

How important is the wild native Pacific salmon population to this part of the country?

Wild salmon is the icon of the Pacific Northwest. Without wild salmon, our ecosystem would be an entirely different thing. Everything depends on wild salmon, from the beginning when they spawn and run out the river to when they come back home to die.

How much longer do you think you’re going to spend out scooping up these farmed salmon before you get back to your real work?

Well, it’s diminishing every day. The fish are moving, so the guys that are catching are having to move to different bays to get them. We think there’s been about a third of the fish caught so far that were spilled, and there’s a big effort out now. So I’m hoping within a week we’ll have it done.

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In Fitting Postscript, Terry Pratchett Had His Unfinished Works Steamrolled

Terry Pratchett, pictured in 2008 in London.

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It’s a pair of rites we see often at the passing of great authors: first, the tributes from those who loved their books; then, the good-faith effort to find their unfinished works and shepherd them to the bookshelves they never would have found otherwise.

In the case of Terry Pratchett’s death in 2015, those tributes were voluminous and poignant, penned for a writer whose deft touch could leave readers laughing, thoughtful or crushed. As for the prolific Discworld author‘s unfinished works — well, those are just crushed.

As in, literally crushed.

Per Sir Terry’s wishes, a hard drive containing his unfinished books was introduced to the unforgiving end of a steamroller last Friday. The manager of Pratchett’s estate, Rob Wilkins, tweeted the ritual act’s before-and-after from the writer’s official account, displaying the hard drive — said to have contained 10 separate works in progress — then displaying what it looked like after meeting a steamroller named Lord Jericho at the Great Dorset Steam Fair.

About to fulfill my obligation to Terry

— Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) August 25, 2017

There goes the browsing history… Many thanks to @steamfair. Soon to be on display at @SalisburyMuseum in September

— Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) August 25, 2017

Richard Henry, an official at The Salisbury Museum, where the remains of the hard drive will be displayed along with other artifacts of Pratchett’s life and work, noted with Pratchett’s characteristic mordant humor that Lord Jericho proved “modern technology is no match for the might of the Industrial Revolution.”

The steam roller Lord Jericho at @steamfair proving modern technology is no match for the might of the Industrial Revolution

— Richard Henry (@Wiltshire_flo) August 29, 2017

Henry told the BBC that Pratchett, who died at age 66, wanted his unfinished works destroyed after his death to prevent them from seeing the light of day without his blessing.

Pratchett had struggled with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease for nearly a decade before his death.

“It’s really nice that they have followed his requests so specifically,” Henry said — though he admitted the effort was not without complications.

“It’s surprisingly difficult to find somebody to run over a hard drive with a steamroller. I think a few people thought we were kidding when I first started putting out feelers to see if it was possible or not.”

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In Houston, Authorities Are Toughening Penalties As Warning To Would-Be Looters

A police car patrols in downtown Houston on Wednesday following the first night of curfew after Harvey caused heavy flooding in the city.

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Mark Ralston /AFP/Getty Images

In flooded Houston, with scores of businesses closed and homes evacuated, authorities are sending a message to those thinking of looting or price-gouging: Taking advantage of the situation won’t be tolerated.

Police are beefing up security in the wake of Hurricane Harvey over reports of looting. That includes imposing a curfew and stiffening penalties for crimes committed in the stricken area.

“We’re city that is about diversity, and opportunity, and all kinds of justice,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. “But we’re not a city that’s going to tolerate people victimizing people that are at the lowest point in their life.”

Acevedo said additional police officers were heading into the Houston area, and described the curfew as a “tool to assess the intentions of people that are out there.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner stated that the midnight to 5 a.m. curfew is intended to prevent criminal activity. It “exempts flood relief volunteers, those seeking shelter, first responders, and those going to and from work.”

It’s not clear how many criminal incidents have occurred in areas hit by flooding, and the police chief declined to provide statistics. “I don’t have the numbers. I can just tell you … we’re nipping it in the bud,” Acevedo said.

Fourteen people accused of looting were arrested in the past 48 hours, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement released Tuesday. They will face “heftier penalties” if found to have broken the law in the disaster area. Burglarizing a home could mean life in prison.

“People displaced or harmed in this storm are not going to be easy prey,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “Anyone who tries to take advantage of this storm to break into homes or businesses should know that they are going to feel the full weight of the law. … Offenders will be processed around the clock without delay.”

Texas law states that certain crimes bring harsher sentences “if they are committed in a county declared a disaster area by the governor,” Ogg said. “Burglarizing a home would normally bring a penalty of two to 20 years in prison, but now brings five years to life.”

Federal authorities are also warning about reports of people impersonating federal agents. Dressed as Homeland Security Investigations agents, they are “knocking on doors in the Houston area telling residents to evacuate — presumably so these imposters can rob the empty homes,” according to a Homeland Security statement.

Authorities stress that legitimate agents will wear badges, and advise that “members of the public who receive such visitors should ask to see these properly labeled badges, and their credentials.”

The Houston Chronicle reports that court records indicate that late Monday, police arrested a group of people allegedly breaking into a liquor store, and another group in a “suspicious pickup truck” at a shopping center.

There have also been reports of price gouging. According to The Associated Press, the state’s attorney general has received complaints of “loaves of bread offered for $15, fuel for $100 a gallon and hotels raising room rates.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott emphasized that “price gouging is not only reprehensible, it’s illegal.”

He added: “Understand this: if you price gouge anybody, you could be subject to penalties of up to $25,000 per incident. If you’re a business, you can be put out of business by the Texas attorney general if you dare try any price gouging.”

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