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Have we cut state budget enough? Must Alaskans pony up? No.

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 15:23

Calling on all Alaskans! If you don't read anything else political between now and the next legislative session in January, please bear through the numbers and read this piece. You will be shocked but you also will be well-equipped to answer the questions above.

What does it all mean? Where are we? Egads. If we've really cut 44 percent (we haven't) then we must be down to bare bones (we aren't).

Consider this: Although our state has unique challenges, is larger than the state of Idaho, and has fewer local governments chipping in, our per capita spending is four times that of Idaho. You read that right: four times. The truth is, we can still make reductions without sacrificing excellent, essential services and in doing so, avoid asking Alaskans to pull hard-earned dollars from their wallets to pay for inefficiencies and nice but unnecessary programs.

So back to that 44 percent. The governor has touted that 44 percent has been cut, but you should know that this claim doesn't at all tell the true story. It just refers to one category of funding (unrestricted general funds), doesn't account for increases in other funding categories, includes capital dollars (that were extremely generous a few years ago), and also includes a one-time $3 billion payment into the retirement system. Obviously, the 44 percent claim is very misleading.

[Trying to make sense of the state budget standoff]

What most of us care about is the year-after-year operating budget —  the total annual cost of the daily operations of all the departments. Perhaps you've heard another claim of the governor, that "total state spending on the operating budget has been cut $1.9 billion since fiscal year 2015 — a 27 percent decrease in three years."  Let's look at this closely. Twenty-seven percent sure sounds like a lot.

What makes up that $1.9 billion in cuts, that 27 percent? Operational dollars to programs and to the departments? Hardly.

According to Legislative Finance, $582 million out of the $1.9 billion is due to the reduction to Alaskans' Permanent Fund dividend checks last year.

$508.6 million is due to the reduction in what we're paying to small companies, the little guys, for oil tax credits owed to them by the state.

Those two items totaling about $1.1 billion were not hardcore reductions to programs and departments but were actually cutbacks to Alaskans and to small businesses. Not a penny of the $1.1 billion required any belt-tightening in state offices or to state services.

So what makes up the difference between the $1.1 and the $1.9 billion? On the surface, it sounds like a solid $790.6 million decrease in spending for agency operations over three years. Is there a catch? I'm afraid there is.

[Alaska lawmakers approve budget compromise to avert government shutdown]

The truth is that this $790.6 million less in UGF spending is offset by an increase of $450.6 million in spending in other funding categories (federal, designated, and other) in the operating budget.

So the real decrease in agency operations spending over those 3 years? $340 million. Let that sink in. Not $1.9 billion. $340 million.

This equates to less than a 3 percent reduction (The $340 million reduction is a 2.9 percent  reduction to the total state budget, operating and capital. It is 3.4 percent reduction to the operating budget.) over three years in the overall state budget. Not 44 percent, not 27 percent, just 3 percent. Now let that sink in too. Less than 3 percent over three years.

We need honesty and transparency — not spin — when we talk about the budget.

Here's some straight talk: Politicians who lead the public to think programs and departments have been cut to the bare bone are simply trying to convince you that we can't cut anymore and that it's time to tax you — and time also to take half your PFD this year — and a greater share of it in the future. Please know that I'm not one of them. I'll be #Telling_it_like_it_is every chance I get for your benefit (you can like and follow my senator page on Facebook).

Sen. Shelley Hughes represents Alaska Senate District F, including Chugiak, Peters Creek Eklutna, Fairview Loop, Butte, Lazy Mountain, Gateway and Palmer.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Your ugly holiday sweater could get you early boarding on Alaska Airlines

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 13:35

Hey, you, in the ugly sweater: Get to the front of the line!

Alaska Airlines plans to celebrate National Ugly Holiday Sweater Day on Dec. 15 by allowing early boarding at all 115 cities where they operate.

"Travel during the holidays can be stressful for guests, especially those who do not travel often. This fun promotion not only allows guests to board early on that day, but gives people another opportunity to dust off that ugly holiday sweater hanging in the back of their closet," Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Natalie Bowman wrote in a statement.

The celebration includes all Alaska Airlines, Virgin America and Horizon Air flights.

"All guests are invited to join in the merriment of the holiday season and share their memories on Twitter by tagging their photos and videos using the hashtags: #UglySweaterDay and #MostWestCoast," the airline statement read.

Under Trump, EPA has slowed actions against polluters, and put limits on enforcement officers

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 13:11

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — The highway billboard at the entrance to town still displays a giant campaign photograph of President Donald Trump, who handily won the election across industrial Ohio. But a revolt is brewing in East Liverpool over Trump's move to slow down the federal government's policing of air and water pollution.

The City Council moved unanimously last month to send a protest letter to the Environmental Protection Agency about a hazardous waste incinerator near downtown. Since Trump took office, the EPA has not moved to punish the plant's owner, even after extensive evidence was assembled during the Obama administration that the plant had repeatedly, and illegally, released harmful pollutants into the air.

"I don't know where we go," Councilman William Hogue, a retired social studies teacher, said in frustration to his fellow council members. "They haven't resolved anything."

Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, has said the Trump administration's high-profile regulatory rollback does not mean a free pass for violators of environmental laws. But as the Trump administration moves from one attention-grabbing headline to the next, it has taken a significant but less-noticed turn in the enforcement of federal pollution laws.

An analysis of enforcement data by The New York Times shows that the administration has adopted a more lenient approach than the previous two administrations — Democratic and Republican — toward polluters like those in East Liverpool.

The Times built a database of civil cases filed at the EPA during the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. During the first nine months under Pruitt's leadership, the EPA started about 1,900 cases, about one-third fewer than the number under President Barack Obama's first EPA director and about one-quarter fewer than under President George W. Bush's over the same time period.

In addition, the agency sought civil penalties of about $50.4 million from polluters for cases initiated under Trump. Adjusted for inflation, that is about 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought and about 70 percent of what the Bush administration sought over the same time period.

The EPA, turning to one of its most powerful enforcement tools, also can force companies to retrofit their factories to cut pollution. Under Trump, those demands have dropped sharply. The agency has demanded about $1.2 billion worth of such fixes, known as injunctive relief, in cases initiated during the nine-month period, which, adjusted for inflation, is about 12 percent of what was sought under Obama and 48 percent under Bush.

Resolving complicated pollution cases can take time, and the EPA said it remained committed to ensuring companies obeyed environmental laws.

"EPA and states work together to find violators and bring them back into compliance, and to punish intentional polluters," the agency said in a statement. Officials said Pruitt was less fixated on seeking large penalties than some of his predecessors were.

"We focus more on bringing people back into compliance than bean counting," the statement said.

Confidential internal EPA documents show that the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Pruitt's team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives.

The documents, which were reviewed by The Times, indicate that EPA enforcement officers across the country no longer have the authority to order certain air and water pollution tests, known as requests for information, without receiving permission from Washington. The tests are essential to building a case against polluters, the equivalent of the radar gun for state highway troopers.

At at least two of the agency's most aggressive regional offices, requests for information involving companies suspected of polluting have fallen significantly under Trump, according to internal EPA data.

In the last two complete fiscal years of the Obama administration, the EPA's office in Chicago sent requests for testing that covered an average of 50 facilities per year, or about 4.2 each month. By comparison, after the policy changes, one such request for a single facility was made in the subsequent four-month period. There was a similar decline in the Denver regional office, according to the data.

The enforcement slowdown has been compounded by the departure of more than 700 employees at the EPA since Trump's election, many of them via buyouts intended to reduce the agency's size, and high-level political vacancies at the EPA and the Justice Department. The agency's top enforcement officer — Susan Bodine — was confirmed only late last week.

Separately, Pruitt's team has told officials and industry representatives in Missouri, North Dakota and other states that EPA enforcement officers will stand down on some pollution cases, according to agency documents. The retrenchment is said to be part of a nationwide handoff of many enforcement duties to state authorities, an effort Pruitt calls cooperative federalism but critics say is an industry-friendly way to ease up on polluters.

Current and recently departed EPA staff members said the new direction has left many employees feeling frozen in place, and demoralized, particularly in the regional offices, which have investigators who are especially knowledgeable of local pollution threats.

"Certain people who are polluting are doing it with impunity right now and I think it is horrible," said Nicole Cantello, an EPA lawyer in the Chicago office, who has worked at the agency for 26 years.

Cantello agreed to speak to The Times because she is protected by her status as a union official. The EPA did not authorize agency employees to speak.

The Times asked top EPA enforcement officials from the Obama and Bush administrations to review The Times' data, analysis and methodology. They said the slowdown signaled a sea change in enforcement under Trump.

"Those kinds of numbers are stark," said Granta Nakayama, a lawyer who served in the Bush administration as assistant administrator for the EPA's enforcement office and who now represents companies facing EPA enforcement actions for the law firm King & Spalding, where he oversees the environmental practice.

"If you're not filing cases, the cop's not on the beat," he said. "Or has the cop been taken off the beat?"

Cynthia Giles, the former assistant administrator for the EPA's enforcement office during the Obama administration, also prepared a separate version of the data. She described as a "stunning decline" the reduced efforts under Trump to require companies to bring their facilities into compliance with pollution laws.

"The Pruitt EPA is cratering on the enforcement work that matters most: holding the biggest polluters accountable," said Giles, now a director at the Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago.

Some enforcement experts suggested that the EPA under Pruitt might have filed fewer cases because it was going after larger penalties. But according to the Times analysis, most of the top penalties were smaller than those in the previous two administrations. And the nine-month window included the single largest civil case filed by the EPA, against Exxon Mobil.

 'It Really Just Scares Me' 

On a midsummer afternoon in 2013, boiler ash and steam blasted through a breach at the Heritage Thermal Services hazardous waste incinerator, spewing hundreds of pounds of ash into a nearby neighborhood in East Liverpool and setting off a series of small fires at the plant.

Tests later showed that the ash, which looked like dirty clumps of cotton candy scattered across rooftops and lawns, contained toxic chemicals. In some samples, lead and arsenic were found at concentrations that "could pose a hazard to small children," according to an Ohio Department of Health report. Heritage Thermal went door to door offering to wash people's houses and replace vegetables in their gardens.

Sandra Estell, 64, who lives on a river bluff overlooking the plant, said the ash covered her brother's Chevy Blazer and blanketed the street where she grew up. Even when the plant operates normally, she said, she smells the incinerator from her home — with the odor changing from rotten eggs to an electrical fire to something difficult to place.

Truckloads of hazardous waste often sit in the parking lot outside the plant, awaiting disposal. On the day of the accident in 2013, the plant was burning through a load of waste sent from an oil refinery in Toledo.

"It really just scares me," Estell said of the incinerator.

The plant falls under the jurisdiction of the EPA regional office in Chicago, which moved quickly to investigate the episode as a possible violation of the Clean Air Act, federal records show.

Investigators sent Heritage Thermal's general manager what is known as a Section 114(a) request for detailed information on the explosion. Failing to answer the questions, warned George T. Czerniak, who was then the EPA's Chicago-based director of the air and radiation division, could result in punishment.

Heritage Thermal complied within weeks, and also disclosed that the plant had faced a series of related problems when pressure inside the incinerator had climbed to dangerous levels. Czerniak asked for more information about those episodes, and by March 2015 he had signed a formal letter of complaint, alleging a series of Clean Air Act violations that would very likely result in fines, as well as possible civil or criminal action.

"We are offering you an opportunity to confer with us about the violations," Czerniak wrote in the letter. "You may have an attorney represent you at this conference."

More than 2 1/2 years later, the matter remains unresolved, leading to the letter of complaint to the EPA last month from the East Liverpool City Council. The body is dominated by Democrats, but it says its motivation in criticizing the EPA is based on concerns about public safety and not partisan politics.

John Mercer, a City Council member, said taking on air pollution issues at Heritage Thermal has been a delicate matter because the area has lost thousands of jobs as steel and pottery manufacturing plants closed. "Heritage Thermal is one of the city's largest employers," he said. "We are all friends and neighbors with those that work there."

Still, he said, residents want the matter resolved. "Our constituents deserve answers that no one seems to want to provide," he said.

A spokesman for the EPA declined to comment on the case's status, as did Christopher T. Pherson, president of Heritage Thermal. The company said in a statement that it "is committed to continuously enhancing its performance and environmental compliance."

Estell, who was critical of the plant even before it opened in the 1990s for being built near homes, blames the change in administrations in Washington for the inaction. "Something made them slam on the brakes," she said.

Every administration runs into delays when investigating and enforcing environmental laws, and it is hard to pinpoint why any particular case might stall without access to confidential EPA files. But the lack of action in East Liverpool mirrors a pattern of sluggish new enforcement activity under the Trump administration, as represented in data analyzed by The Times.

The Times identified more than a dozen companies or plants like Heritage Thermal that received notices of violation toward the end of the Obama administration, but as of late November had not faced EPA penalties. The findings were based on agency files released through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group run by a former EPA enforcement chief.

Indiana Harbor Coke in East Chicago, Indiana, has received at least three warning notices since 2015 for pollution violations, including hundreds of illegal emissions of lead, which can cause serious health problems, especially for children.

Other cases include TimkenSteel Corp. of Canton, Ohio, which was served with a notice in November 2015 for illegally emitting hazardous toxins, including mercury, which, when inhaled in large quantities, can cause pulmonary edema, respiratory failure and death.

In Waterford, Ohio, Globe Metallurgical was cited in June 2015 and December 2016 for air pollution violations. The EPA collected evidence that it was emitting illegal amounts of sulfur dioxide, which can irritate the nose and throat and, at very high concentrations, cause life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

And in East Liverpool, just down the street from the Heritage Thermal incinerator, S.H. Bell was cited for allowing toxic levels of dust with heavy metal chemical additives such as manganese to drift beyond its property line.

Tests conducted near S.H. Bell found "the highest levels of ambient manganese concentrations in the United States," a complaint issued during the Obama administration said. Health officials warned that the situation represented "a public health hazard and should be mitigated as soon as possible to reduce harmful exposures."

Research led by the University of Cincinnati found in September that levels of manganese in the blood and hair of children in East Liverpool appeared to be related to lower IQ scores, a conclusion executives from S.H. Bell have disputed.

The EPA moved in the final days of the Obama administration to resolve the S.H. Bell matter, proposing a consent decree in January that would require changes to reduce manganese dust levels and to improve monitoring.

Generally, a proposed consent decree is resolved within several months, but in March, the Trump administration asked a federal judge to delay the case so the EPA could "brief incoming administration officials with decision-making responsibility" given that "many subordinate political positions at the agency remain unfilled." The Justice Department has since asked the court to move ahead, but the case remains open.

A spokeswoman for S.H. Bell said the company had moved to comply with the requirements and that its operations had not harmed residents. The EPA said in a statement that it was waiting for the court to act. "It would not be appropriate to discuss the open enforcement matters," the statement said.

Roberta Pratt, 49, a bartender who lives with her family on a block situated between Heritage Thermal and S.H. Bell, said she worries constantly about the delays in enforcement at the facilities. The side of her house, she said, is stained with a rusty color from heavy metals that float through the air.

"It makes me feel like less of a mother," said Pratt of the pollution problems. "You can't protect your children."

Fighting back tears, she added, "People say to me, 'Why don't you just pick up and move out of here?' Well, I just don't have the money to do that."

 Industry Gets a Sympathetic Ear

The memo was marked "Privileged/Confidential/Do Not Release" and was signed by Susan Shinkman, director of civil enforcement at the EPA and one of Pruitt's top deputies in Washington at the time.

It arrived by email to agency employees across the country on May 31.

With four pages of detailed instructions, it directed EPA investigators to seek authorization before asking companies to track their emissions with instruments that determine the type and amount of pollutants being released at their plants.

It also said investigators needed special authorization if they did not have evidence that the company had quite likely violated the law, or if state authorities objected to the tests.

The scope was far-reaching, applying to possible violations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and federal laws regulating hazardous waste plants.

The goal of these changes, the memo said, was to "ensure a more nationally consistent and complete accounting of federal compliance monitoring and enforcement activities." But the directive arrived like a thunderbolt, upending one of the agency's most effective methods in catching polluters, EPA regional officials said, and one that was extremely unpopular with the oil and gas industry.

In the previous two years, investigators in the Chicago office had sent requests for information — which includes requests for testing — that covered 267 facilities in the six Midwest states it oversees, including in cases involving giant mountains of petcoke stored near residential neighborhoods in Chicago. A carbon and sulfur byproduct of refining oil, petcoke particles can become airborne and enter the lungs, causing serious health effects.

Investigators in the regional office in Denver, which handles many oil and gas cases, also sent out a series of requests during the Obama administration based on hints that energy producers were letting vast quantities of hazardous air pollutants escape into the atmosphere. The pollutants included benzene, which is a carcinogen, and methane, which is a major contributor to climate change. The investigations escalated after four workers at energy facilities in North Dakota were overcome by fumes and died.

As the Obama administration came to a close, companies had grown increasingly unhappy with the tests and began to fight them by turning to allies in Washington.

Koch Carbon, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, which operated two petcoke storage facilities in Chicago, challenged the EPA's authority to require the tests in a formal filing with the agency, EPA documents show, although it still provided the information the agency had requested. The test results showed that its petcoke piles were, in fact, threatening neighbors and led to their removal.

Republicans in Congress, including Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, took up the cause for the oil and gas industry. In public hearings, Inhofe interrogated EPA officials about the tests and called them "a backdoor effort for the EPA to cut greenhouse gas emissions."

When Trump was elected and named Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, to lead the EPA, the complaints got a fresh — and sympathetic — hearing. Shinkman, in an interview, said she was instructed to write the new policy memo after Pruitt received letters of complaint from oil industry executives in North Dakota and Colorado. Shinkman retired from the EPA in September; in its statement to The Times, the EPA did not say whether the oil and gas industry had been a factor in its decision.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, wrote to Pruitt in March describing the tests as burdensome and costly. "Under the previous administration, the EPA initiated sweeping Clean Air Act (CAA) Section 114 information requests and threatened company-ending sanctions," Ness wrote in a letter obtained by The Times.

In his response to Ness, Pruitt wrote that the EPA would "develop best practices for the judicious use" of the requests, and also hand off much of the enforcement of air pollution laws to North Dakota officials, except on Indian lands where the federal government has jurisdiction.

"The EPA acknowledges the critical role that the oil and gas industry plays in ensuring the nation's energy independence through domestic energy production," Pruitt wrote to Ness in July.

The change in North Dakota was part of a broader effort by the EPA to give states more say in how to treat polluters.

In a letter to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Edward Chu, deputy administrator of the EPA's regional office in Kansas, said the agency would back off some inspection and enforcement activity so the state could take the lead. "These shifts in direction do represent significant change," Chu wrote.

Officials in North Dakota said the new arrangement there is leading to faster resolution of cases involving the oil and gas industry.

"We are focused on compliance and fixes, not on big fines that are trumped up," said Jim Semerad, who leads the division of the North Dakota Department of Health that enforces air emissions rules.

But some critics question the sincerity of Pruitt's deference to state authorities, in part because it comes as the Trump administration has proposed cutting grants that help states pay for local enforcement. And the vigilance of some states in taking on the new responsibilities is also uncertain.

An audit by the EPA inspector general in 2011 described North Dakota as "a state philosophically opposed to taking enforcement action" against polluters.

The state's fines, moreover, are a tiny fraction of those imposed by the EPA for the same violations, records obtained by The Times show, and some North Dakota settlements do not require the hiring of independent inspectors to ensure companies honor their promises.

In Ohio, a change in state law that was tucked into a budget bill this year cut funding for an inspector in East Liverpool, even as Ohio authorities found continued evidence of air pollution violations at the Heritage Thermal incinerator, according to state records obtained by The Times.

Ohio Environmental Services Industry, a trade group that represents Heritage Thermal and a handful of other hazardous waste companies, pushed for the change. The group said the facility would receive sufficient oversight without the dedicated state inspector.

The changes across the country, some lawyers suggest, are giving violators an upper hand in negotiating with the EPA.

Paul Calamita, who represents cities accused of violating the Clean Water Act when they release sewage and contaminated stormwater into rivers and lakes, recommends that clients team up with state governments to push back against the EPA.

Under Trump, Calamita said, the EPA and the Department of Justice have been willing to compromise, withdrawing a six-figure penalty in one instance after refusing to do so in two previous rounds of negotiations during the Obama administration.

"States with new Republican governors are following the Trump approach — providing compliance assistance at the outset to avoid enforcement where the discharger is cooperative," he said in a presentation to utility executives from around the United States. "A state that pushes back on EPA is likely to be successful."

 Muscular Office Loses Muscle

The EPA under Pruitt has pursued some high-profile prosecutions of polluters and has talked tough about companies like Fiat Chrysler, which like Volkswagen has been accused of installing software on its vehicles meant to evade emissions standards.

The agency's biggest civil case filed since Trump took office involves Exxon Mobil, which was accused of not properly operating and monitoring industrial flares at its petrochemical facilities. Exxon agreed in October to pay $2.5 million in civil penalties, some of which will go to Louisiana, and spend $300 million to install new technology to reduce air pollution.

The agency on Friday also released a list of 21 Superfund sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants that Pruitt has targeted for immediate and intense attention. One of the sites on the list, Tar Creek, a former lead and zinc mine, is in Oklahoma, where Pruitt once served as attorney general and state senator.

But more than a dozen current and former EPA officials told The Times that the slowdown in enforcement is real on the ground, and that it is being directed from the top.

At the Ralph Metcalfe Federal Building in Chicago, which houses a regional office of the EPA, employees said it has become difficult to even start a new investigation. Because it covers states populated with Rust Belt industries, the Chicago office has traditionally been one of the busiest of the 10 regions.

An agency spokeswoman, in a statement, said "we have not rejected any requests for sampling, monitoring and testing" that were sent to headquarters as a result of the new policy. But agency staff said the memo made clear such requests were discouraged, and many fewer were being drafted.

Jeff Trevino, a lawyer in the Chicago office, who has worked for the agency for 27 years, said the new hurdles imposed by Pruitt had created "a Catch-22" because, with new policies effectively discouraging requests for information, investigators will have a harder time getting the data needed to detect and confirm violations.

Trevino, like other current EPA employees, was not authorized by the agency to speak with The Times, and did so as a member of the labor union.

"We are the boots on the ground and we just are having a hard time now getting the information we need to do our job," said Felicia Chase, who has worked for nearly a decade as a water pollution enforcement officer in the Chicago office, which covers states from Minnesota to Ohio. She was also speaking in her capacity as a union member.

Chase sat glumly in the cafeteria just before Thanksgiving. On a television set on the wall, Trump could be seen offering an official pardon to a turkey, joking that he could not reverse Obama's turkey pardons from the previous year.

Some workers said they would take the unusual step of asking members of Congress to protect funding for the work they do, while others said they held out hope that the new restrictions on information gathering would not be permanent. Shinkman, the retired author of the May memo, said she had hoped to avoid a sharp drop in requests for information, but she declined to elaborate how that would be possible.

Czerniak, who led the air pollution unit in Chicago until his retirement in 2016, said it was hard to watch the agency struggle through this new era.

"People at the agency are just being cautious, almost to the point of paralysis," he said. "They do not want to do anything for fear of being told they have done something wrong — something the new administrator won't like."

Now another man claims he was the person saving a bunny in a viral California wildfire video

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 12:40

In a moment that warmed the internet's cold, cold heart last week, a Los Angeles television station claimed it had un-hoodied the man who ventured into the middle of a California wildfire to rescue a frantic rabbit – a save captured in a dramatic video that got all the feels as it rocketed around cyberspace.

It was good while it lasted.

The story has taken a not-so-heartwarming turn: Another man in another red hoodie has come forward saying he's the one that effected the rabbit rescue – and he has the singed bunny to prove it.

So what was once a case of a human putting his life at risk for the sake of a small, furry creature has become a case of – well, maybe just fraud.

Tuesday's rescue was a bright spot amid the devastation caused by the Thomas Fire, which has scorched more than 150,000 acres, burned hundreds of buildings and been the source of endless orange-tinted tableaus of devastation.

Oscar Gonzales told Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC that he was driving through one of them earlier this week. He was on his way home from work Tuesday when he and a buddy saw a rabbit frantically running along the side of California Highway 1.

"I love animals, myself, and I just felt bad," Gonzales told Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC.

He says he decided to pull over to help. Someone else pulled out a camera and started recording the dramatic scene, its characters backlit by flames.

In the video, the man jumped up and down, trying to get the rabbit's attention. But that might have just further scared the animal.

"I was screaming – I'm all 'what are you doing going toward the fire?'" Gonzales said, narrating the video.

"At first, he was afraid of me because I was yelling, but then it went in my arms. And I picked up the rabbit, and I ran on the other side, and I dropped him off there."

And with that interview, Gonzales briefly became an internet hero.

The rescuer's new fans stormed the interwebs, inundating social media with glad tidings and bunny emoji and making a case for the good Samaritan's canonization.

But then, enter Caleb Wadnan.

On Saturday, he came forward and told the station that he was the one in the video. His story was very similar: driving along Highway One, he saw flames and a terrified animal, then got out to help.

"I just ran after it," he told the news station, detailing his rabbit rescue. "I had a lot of faith in me at the time being. And so I was just focused on the life at hand rather than the flames around me."

The people at KNBC were better able to corroborate his story. For one, he was wearing the same outfit as the guy in the video – not just the red hoodie, but also the black athletic shorts.

He also presented photographic evidence of a singed bunny that he dropped off at a vet's office. Huffington Post talked to the people at the Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital, who said Wadnan had brought in the burned bunny. (The female cottontail was recovering from burns and heat damage, and it was too soon to say when she'd be fully healed.)

The competing claims sparked a new series of questions: Was Gonzales simply lying? Is it possible that both men had rescued rabbits on that day but only one was captured on film? Did KNBC try to verify Gonzales's claims before they beamed them out to the world? Are there more adorable photos of a recuperating bunny wrapped in a blanket?

NBC appended its article with an editors' note, and said its staff had used some high tech wizardry to try to discern the real savior:

"On Saturday, NBC4 found reason to believe that Oscar Gonzales was not the man in the video as he claimed and followed up him with him and his girlfriend. The couple still insists he was the one seen in the video, but after using an enhanced image NBC4 has concluded the actual man in the video was Caleb Wadnan."

Of course, whether the rabbit rescuer's actions were right or not had already been scrutinized by the unblinking eye of people on the internet, with many saying scooping up the bunny was wrong to begin with.

Rabbits and their rabbit-like forbearers (forehares?) have been running away from forest fires for millions of years. They're just as skilled at getting out of danger as humans are – and some can weather out forest fires by simply staying in their burrows. So did the actions of whoever was in the video actually save the rabbit?

Others went further down the rabbit hole. Maybe the rabbit wasn't running from the fire, but toward a litter of defenseless bunnies. LiveScience opined as much in what is perhaps the most buzz-killing headline stemming from the save: "Did The Wildfire Rabbit 'Rescuer' Doom A Litter of Babies?"

And by getting out of his car and running toward the flames, the rescuer put himself – and others – in harm's way.

He could have also endangered fire crews who would not have waded into the flames for a rabbit, but would have put themselves at risk to rescue a man.

Most wildlife experts advise people to leave wild animals alone in these situations. Human intervention, they say, merely puts a kink in the circle of life.

What all those armchair quarterbacks didn't know at the time was that there was not simply one ethical dilemma evident in this story – there are two.

And the most recent one is not going away. Both men know there's another guy claiming to be the hero from the video. Both are sticking by their stories.

This is how nuclear war with North Korea would unfold

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 08:46

No one wants to fight a nuclear war. Not in North Korea, not in South Korea and not in the United States. And yet leaders in all three countries know that such a war may yet come – if not by choice then by mistake.

The world survived tense moments on the Korean Peninsula in 1969 , 1994 and 2010. Each time, the parties walked to the edge of danger, peered into the abyss, then stepped back. But what if one of them stumbled, slipped over the edge and, grasping for life, dragged the others down into the darkness?

This is how that might happen, based on public statements, intelligence reports and blast-zone maps.

MARCH 2019: This time, the North Koreans went too far.

For years, North Korea had staged provocations – and South Korea had lived with them. The two had come close to war before: In 2010, a North Korean torpedo detonated just below a South Korean navy corvette, cutting the ship in two and sending 46 sailors to their deaths. Later that year, when North Korean artillery barraged a South Korean island and killed four more people, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reportedly ordered aircraft to deliver a counter-strike deep inside North Korea, but the U.S. military held him back.

This time was different. No one thought President Moon Jae-in, a progressive known for his attempts to engage North Korea, would want blood. But nobody grasped how quickly accidental violence could take on its own, urgent logic.

In late February, the United States was moving military forces into the region for an annual joint exercise with the South code-named "Foal Eagle." South Korea had canceled the 2018 exercise to avoid upsetting the North before the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. To make up for the lost year, the 2019 drill was larger than ever.

When a South Korean airliner crossed over into North Korean airspace, a Northern air defense crew, already jumpy and anticipating the allied maneuvers in the Sea of Japan, mistook it for an American bomber. The crew fired a surface-to-air missile, sending the plane plunging into the ocean, killing all 250 people on board.

The South Korean public was outraged. Within hours, Moon ordered South Korean missile units to strike the air defense battery, as well as select leadership targets throughout North Korea. Moon's limited missile strike might have been enough by itself to start the nuclear war of 2019. South Korean and American officials are still trading accusations. But the surviving members of the Moon administration insist that things would have been fine had President Donald Trump not picked up his smartphone: "LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON'T BE AROUND MUCH LONGER!"

It was an idle Twitter threat – Trump hadn't yet been briefed about the missile strike, and it hadn't yet been discussed on "Fox & Friends." But how would Kim Jong Un know that? To him, with U.S. forces lurking nearby and South Korean missiles slamming into his military sites, the meaning of Trump's tweet seemed clear: Trump was now using the shootdown as a pretext for the invasion he had wanted all along.

Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, had begun North Korea's nuclear weapons program decades before. He had concluded, according to defectors who testified before the U.S. Congress, that Saddam Hussein had made a terrible mistake in 1991 to sit back and watch the United States build up a massive invasion force. His son and grandson had watched Hussein dragged out of a spider hole and later hanged following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. They had seen videos of Moammar Gaddafi's gruesome death in Libya at the hands of rebels supported by U.S. airpower.

Each had made up his mind that, as soon as the United States moved to remove the Kim family from power, he would order the Strategic Rocket Force of the Korean People's Army to fire nuclear-armed short- and medium-range missiles at U.S. forces throughout South Korea and Japan. Kim Jong Un hoped that the sudden attack would inflict tens of thousands of casualties, blunting the invasion force and stunning a casualty-averse American public. It was a desperate gamble, but doing nothing meant certain death.

And so, facing what he believed was a massive American military invasion, Kim gave the order. The thread of history winds along on twists of fate, like Archduke Ferdinand's driver missing a turn.

For years, North Korean missile units had rehearsed this very scenario, taking Scud and Nodong missiles into the field at night to practice firing them against U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan – using nuclear weapons to slaughter the enemy's troops as they slept in their barracks or as they arrived at ports and airfields.

This time it wasn't an exercise. In 2017, the U.S. intelligence community had assessed that North Korea had as many as 60 nuclear warheads and was adding about 12 a year. That number was a little high: Kim did not have 72 nuclear weapons. But he did have 48.

The Strategic Rocket Forces used 36 of them in the first wave. These missiles were largely extended-range Scuds and longer-range Rodongs. The launches looked exactly like the military exercises that the North Koreans had publicized year after year.

The targets in South Korea and Japan were largely located in urban areas. Yongsan Garrison, for example, was in the heart of Seoul. The Port of Busan, another important target, was in South Korea's second-largest city. In Japan, many U.S. bases were concentrated in and around metropolitan Tokyo – Yokota and Atsugi air bases, Yokosuka naval base. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, about 20 miles from Hiroshima, was also targeted.

Some of these missiles broke up in flight, failing to reach their targets. U.S. officials would later claim that they were intercepted by American and South Korean missile defenses – although most experts dispute that. Observers had long warned that the effectiveness of missile defense was being exaggerated. Trump had told reporters in 2017 that Japan and South Korea could "easily shoot (North Korean missiles) out of the sky, just like we shot something out of the sky the other day in Saudi Arabia, as you saw." In fact, Saudi and U.S. officials knew that the defense had failed to intercept that warhead, which narrowly missed hitting an airport.

Many North Korean missiles did miss their targets in South Korea and Japan by a few kilometers. But these were fission devices, with yields similar to the nuclear weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the bombs that fell off target still inflicted massive damage on urban areas. The blasts leveled buildings and were followed by massive firestorms that consumed large areas of Seoul, Busan and Tokyo.

For at least a few hours, the North Koreans were able to follow the nuclear attack with waves of conventional missiles and long-range artillery. People would remark on the heroism of the surviving firefighters trying desperately to extinguish the flames as missiles, some armed with chemical weapons, continued to rain down on them. The suffering would play out over many days, as survivors, afflicted with acute radiation sickness, picked their way through the rubble to die at home. As it had been in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the infrastructure to provide medical care was overwhelmed.

North Korea fired a small number of its newer-generation Hwasong-12 missiles, also armed with nuclear weapons, at Okinawa and Guam. But at these ranges, the missiles are quite inaccurate – only about half fall within a few miles of their targets. All of the missiles aimed at Okinawa and Guam dropped into the ocean. A few people were killed in the panic and car crashes that followed the blinding flashes of the atmospheric nuclear explosions, but U.S. military operations out of Kadena Air Base and Andersen Air Force Base continued.

Kim did not, on that first evening, use nuclear weapons against the U.S. homeland. His strategy had been to halt the invasion and shock Trump. He knew he had 12 longer-range missiles in reserve, massive intercontinental ballistic missiles like the Hwasong-15 that North Korea began testing in late 2017 and that could deliver the North's powerful new thermonuclear weapons. If Trump continued to threaten Kim's hold on power, or if he and his family were to die at the hands of the Americans, Kim was determined to use these missiles to strike the United States mainland. He hoped the threat would cause Trump to come to his senses.

But Kim had misread the American mood. With airfields in Okinawa and Guam still working, and long-range bombers perfectly capable of striking North Korea from domestic bases, the United States mounted a massive air operation to kill Kim and destroy any remaining ballistic missiles that could be found. This campaign was, to the surprise of many observers, a conventional air campaign – U.S. officials had concluded that the use of nuclear weapons would undermine the message that the United States was attempting to liberate the people of North Korea. Of course, Kim didn't know that: Ongoing U.S. airstrikes left him almost completely cut off from communication with his military units, and in the fog of war, rumors about American nuclear strikes spread.

So Kim gave the order to use the remaining nuclear-armed Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs against targets in the United States – two each against naval bases in Pearl Harbor and San Diego, along with leadership targets in New York, Washington, D.C., and – in a personal touch – a single missile aimed at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, to bring the total to a dozen. The targets looked very much like the ones shown on a large map of the United States erected in Kim's office, in front of which he had authorized the development of a nuclear strike plan in 2013.

The United States, of course, had a missile defense system in Alaska, along with a small number of interceptors in California. But the system was sized to deal with only 11 missiles. As it was, two-thirds of the North Korean missiles reached their targets.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency would later say this was a sign that the system had worked well, downing about a third of the missiles – although experts would argue that the low intercept rate resulted from problems that the Los Angeles Times had reported in 2017. The exoatmospheric kill vehicles had faulty divert thrusters, analysts said, making it unlikely that any had successfully intercepted incoming warheads. It seemed more likely, the experts said, that four of the missiles had simply broken up as they re-entered the earth's atmosphere.

The remaining seven nuclear warheads landed in the United States. These missiles were no more accurate than the others – but with 200-kiloton warheads, 10 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, close was enough to count in most cases. Pearl Harbor took a direct hit with a single weapon, while San Diego was lucky: Both of the missiles aimed there failed to arrive.

One warhead hit Manhattan – which North Korea's state media had specifically mentioned as a target of its long-range missiles – while the two missiles pointed at Washington struck the Northern Virginia suburbs. Trump, in a makeshift bunker in the basement at Mar-a-Lago, felt the earth shudder as the last warhead landed in the town of Jupiter, Florida, about 20 miles away. The other two missiles fell wildly off course, detonating in the ocean or in rural, sparsely populated areas.

In the next few hours, Trump was informed that allied airstrikes had killed Kim. This was erroneous, but North Korea's government had collapsed. Later, as U.S. and South Korean forces combed through the Pyongyang suburbs, they would find Kim in a bunker, dead by his own hand.

The direct hit on Manhattan killed more than 1 million people. An additional 300,000 perished near Washington. The strikes on Jupiter and Pearl Harbor each killed 20,000 to 30,000. These were just estimates; the scale of the destruction defied authorities' ability to account for the dead. Hundreds of thousands perished in South Korea and Japan from the combination of the blasts and fires.

It would be years before the U.S. government could provide an accounting of the toll. The Pentagon would make almost no effort to tally the enormous numbers of civilians killed in North Korea by the massive conventional air campaign. But in the end, officials concluded, nearly 2 million Americans, South Koreans and Japanese had died in the completely avoidable nuclear war of 2019.

Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. Twitter: @armscontrolwonk

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