Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

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Port secrecy

CBRM Council Chambers

CBRM Council met in secret camera on Thursday to discuss something related to the Port of Sydney.

Under the Municipal Government Act (MGA), which our mayor sometimes worries about and sometimes doesn’t (see the 31 unannounced in camera meetings held over 22 months in 2014-15 in flagrant violation of the MGA), municipal councils may meet in secret for a number of reasons, including the two cited for Thursday’s meeting – contract negotiations and the “acquisition, sale, lease and security of municipal property.”

There is nothing in the MGA that would preclude the mayor from throwing us a bone and telling us what our elected representatives will be discussing during an in camera meeting. (Not to mention telling our elected representatives what they’ll be discussing – which, according to Deputy Mayor Eldon MacDonald and District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch, they didn’t know going into Thursday’s meeting).

There would, in fact, be numerous advantages to telling us, not least of which is that it would nip a lot of rumors in the bud. Because man, I’m hearing rumors — I’m hearing rumors that council is once again being presented with a contract it’s to approve immediately, if not sooner. This rumor is credible because our mayor has done this to council repeatedly — with the creation of the Port of Sydney Development Corporation, the secondment of Marlene Usher from ECBC to head it, the hiring of Harbor Port Development Partners to market the port, the sale of Archibald’s wharf, the $1.2 million purchase of land in Sydport, the extension of Harbor Port Development Partners’ (by that point Sydney Harbour Investment Partners’) contract. Come to think of it, this is the only way our mayor does business — by doing it and then telling council about it.

Council can’t make any decisions during in camera sessions, so presumably whatever was discussed on Thursday will show up on the agenda of the next meeting for a vote, at which point, there will be a public discussion. And let’s hope there is a public discussion rather than a public rubber stamping.

 

Meet the Sacklers

51fifty at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

51fifty at the English language Wikipedia, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve heard of the Sackler family, of course.

No, they’re not from Cape Breton — and truth be told, I had never heard of them until very recently.  It’s not that they’re publicity shy — they are billionaires who’ve been plastering the family name all over museum wings and university buildings in the United States for years — it’s that they’re reticent about admitting the source of those billions.

The Sacklers, you see, own Purdue Pharma, the drug company behind the opioid OxyContin and, as this excellent New Yorker piece by Patrick Radden Keefe makes clear, they’ve also been behind much of the opioid crisis:

Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative, at Brandeis University, has worked with hundreds of patients addicted to opioids. He told me that, though many fatal overdoses have resulted from opioids other than OxyContin, the crisis was initially precipitated by a shift in the culture of prescribing—a shift carefully engineered by Purdue. “If you look at the prescribing trends for all the different opioids, it’s in 1996 that prescribing really takes off,” Kolodny said. “It’s not a coincidence. That was the year Purdue launched a multifaceted campaign that misinformed the medical community about the risks.” When I asked Kolodny how much of the blame Purdue bears for the current public-health crisis, he responded, “The lion’s share.”

It’s really worth a read, not only to help understand how the opioid crisis — which has not spared Cape Breton — arose, but to see how Purdue is now borrowing a page from Big Tobacco’s book and taking its questionable claims about OxyContin to Asia and South America:

“It’s a parallel to what the tobacco industry did,” [Former Mississippi Attorney General] Mike Moore told me. “They got caught in America, they saw their market share decline, so they export it to places with even fewer regulations than we have.” He added, “You know what’s going to happen. You’re going to see lots and lots of death.” In May, several members of Congress wrote to the World Health Organization, urging it to help stop the spread of OxyContin, and mentioning the Sackler family by name. “The international health community has a rare opportunity to see the future,” they wrote. “Do not allow Purdue to walk away from the tragedy they have inflicted on countless American families simply to find new markets and new victims elsewhere.”

 

Final chapter?

By Brianhayden1980 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Don Blankenship. (Photo by Brianhayden1980, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written a couple of times about the connection between the deadly 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in West Virginia and the coal mine in Donkin — it comes down to one man, Chris Blanchard, who managed Upper Big Branch for Massey Energy at the time of the explosion and was later hired by the Cline Group to oversee the startup of Donkin. Today, I thought I’d make note of what appears to be the final chapter in this story, at least as far as criminal prosecutions are concerned.

Blanchard never faced charges over the UBB disaster, which killed 29 miners. Instead, he served as a key government witness against Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who was eventually found guilty of conspiracy to violate safety rules, fined $250,000 and sentenced to a year in prison. According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Blankenship “completed his one-year prison sentence in early May, and is currently serving his one year of supervised release.”

Meanwhile, his appeal has been making its way through the courts. Earlier this year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond affirmed Blankenship’s conviction, despite the pleas of coal industry lobby groups, who entered a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Blankenship. As the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported:

“Operating a coal mine is a difficult venture that presents tough decisions for its managers, who are required to navigate a regulatory minefield in order to operate a successful company,” the brief says.

“Those decisions, especially with respect to production, safety, and regulatory compliance, may at times be imperfect, prone to second-guessing, and, despite the best intentions, even incorrect,” the brief says. “However, those decisions should not lead to criminal liability unless it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual possessed the ‘evil purpose’ necessary to establish that the conduct was illegal, not just general knowledge of the effects of broad regulatory involvement.”

Writing for the 4th Circuit, Judge James Wynn dismissed such arguments:

Wynn explained in the opinion that Congress, in passing federal mine safety laws in 1969 and 1977 had intended to impose enhanced penalties – criminal liability for individual mine operators and company executives – precisely because mine operators could still “find it cheaper to pay minimal civil penalties than to make the capital investments necessary to adequately abate unsafe or unhealthy conditions, and there is still no means by which the government can bring habitual and chronic violators of the law into compliance.”

“Accordingly, Congress saw criminal penalties as a mechanism to punish ‘habitual’ and ‘chronic’ violators that choose to pay fines rather than remedy safety violations, Wynn wrote. “Put differently, a long history of repeated failures, warnings and explanations of the significance of the failures, combined with knowledge of the legal obligations, readily amounts to willfulness.”

Last month, the US Supreme Court announced it would not hear Blankenship’s appeal of this decision, which prompted this amazingly blunt statement from United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President Cecil E. Roberts, who gets the final word in today’s article:

I join with the families of the 29 victims of the Upper Big Branch disaster, as well as the families of the other 25 people killed on Massey Energy property while Don Blankenship was CEO of that company, in applauding the Supreme Court’s rejection of Blankenship’s appeal of his federal criminal conviction.

It’s instructive to look at the record. First, Don’s whack-job theory of what happened at the UBB mine has been deemed false by two state investigations, one federal investigation and one done by the UMWA.

Second, he has been convicted in federal court of setting up a scheme to circumvent federal mine safety and health law. His appeals have been denied at every judicial level, including now by the Supreme Court. He served an all-too-short sentence in a federal penitentiary for his crime. He is a convict, and he will always be one.

No one believes his story about UBB because it is simply not true, even though he continues to pollute the airwaves in West Virginia with his ridiculous claims. It’s time for him to go back to Las Vegas and allow the families of those killed under his watch at Massey to live their lives free from his miserable attempts to blame others for his own misdeeds.

 

Exploits

Cliff Lilly (Still from Land & Sea documentary)

Cliff Lilly (Still from Land & Sea documentary)

Such a grim Fast & Curious this week! It really cries out for “something totally different” to end on.

So try this: The History Keeper of Exploits.

It’s a Land & Sea documentary about Cliff Lilly, a man who has dedicated his retirement to preserving the history of his once bustling, now all-but abandoned Newfoundland home town of Exploits.

I think I’ve already confessed my love of Land & Sea in these pages, but that was compounded recently by the discovery that some of its documentaries are the work of Christopher Richardson, who was in my journalism class at King’s College. (Since I seem to have decided to lighten the mood by name-dropping, I’ll also point out that host Pauline Thornhill was also at King’s when I was.)

Lilly is an interesting man and I am quite sure you won’t regret spending 20 minutes in his company.

 

 

 

 

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