Ohio train derailment prompts ‘controlled release’ of toxic chemicals

A train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed on Friday in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in a large fire, and to prevent an explosion, crews this week began to expel the chemicals from the train cars in a “controlled release,” reports The Washington Post.

The release was to drain the cars of vinyl chloride, a highly unstable compound that is carcinogenic. If inhaled, it could cause respiratory illness, skin burns, and even death. Firefighters controlled the flames, allowing the chemical to burn off. The release went through Monday, however, evacuated residents have not been permitted to return. “We really don’t have a time frame right now,” said Mayor Trent Conaway.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been monitoring the chemicals released both into the ground and the air. There is a risk that vinyl chloride, hydrochloric acid, and phosgene, which is a World War I-era chemical weapon that is also sometimes used as a pesticide, could be released from the burning, the Post continues

Citizens have since become concerned about the potential contamination of the environment. “If a water supply is contaminated, vinyl chloride can enter household air when the water is used for showering, cooking, or laundry,” explains the National Cancer Institute. Vinyl chloride is used to make PVC and is used in many household products. 

“Scientists have been telling us for years that PVC is the most environmentally damaging type of plastic,” explained Emily Jeffers, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. The EPA also has regulations on vinyl chloride because it’s been “implicated as the causal agent of angiosarcoma and other serious disorders, both carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic.”

Currently, residents of East Palestine are still under evacuation orders.

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Just what has Biden accomplished, anyway?

“Politics,” it’s often been said, “is the art of the possible.” It is, to crib another famous phrase, a constant tension between campaigning in poetry, while governing in prose — and perhaps nowhere more so than in the White House, where a president’s every action (and inaction) is scrutinized for signs of deeper significance and political import.

For President Biden, the dissonance between promise and accomplishment seems particularly stark, with a new Washington Post-ABC poll that indicates a significant majority of the country — more than 60 percent — sees his time in office as having accomplished little to nothing. Compounding that bad news for Biden is a separate report from Monmouth University that shows a fifth straight year of declining faith in the state of the union “from 55 percent in 2018 to 39 percent in the current poll,” suggesting that “fundamental faith in the American system continues to erode, even when taking into account the fact that partisan views shift depending on who occupies the White House,” according to Monmouth Polling Institute director Patrick Murray. 

Those measures of public sentiment, however, seem at odds with the reality of Biden’s tenure in the White House. Despite having a “lot of things to tout,” the Biden administration’s triumphs have “not penetrated the American public” NBC’s Chuck Todd noted recently.

So what has Joe Biden accomplished, anyway?

Isn’t it the economy, stupid? 

When longtime Democratic election strategist James Carville coined his now-infamous aphorism in the early 90s, it was intended to help keep then-candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign team on message in their race against President George H.W. Bush. Since then, Carville’s oft-repeated (and frequently parodied) statement has become political shorthand for why Biden’s list of economic accomplishments has hardly seemed to move the needle in his administration’s favor. Indeed, on the economic front, the Biden White House has notched a number of historic victories, particularly when it comes to adding jobs to the U.S. economy. In his first year in office, employers added 6.6 million jobs, an all-time record for a president’s initial 12 months in office — a trend that’s continued throughout the president’s term, including through this past January, in which the country’s unemployment rate dropped to its lowest point in more than half a century

In spite of Biden’s robust gains, public sentiment around the administration’s economic achievements has ranged from underwhelming to overt hostility. A suite of recent polls shows Biden’s economic approval well below his general approval score, while more than half disapprove of his handling of the economy. The disparity is likely the result of an “ongoing focus on inflation” rather than the complete — and much more optimistic — economic picture, according to Yahoo’s Ben Werschkul

Acknowledging the challenges of imparting a more holistic sense of Biden’s various economic gains, Treasury Secretary Pete Buttigieg stressed during a recent appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press that “it can be difficult to list them in a distilled way.”

Okay, but what about inflation? 

Despite taking a significant polling hit over weakening purchasing power, the Biden administration has indeed addressed the country’s growing inflation — most pointedly with the $750 billion 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law this past August, which featured a host of tax policy modifications, clean energy initiatives, and Medicare pricing reductions. All told, the bill represents “one of the most significant laws in our history,” Biden said during its signing ceremony. As the Post noted in its recent poll, however, “many of the laws [Biden] signed during the first half of his term are just now being implemented.” Put another way: despite the historic significance of the Inflation Reduction Act — it contains the largest investment in green energy and climate change legislation in the country’s history — the average consumer has yet to really feel the full effect of the bill. 

Planes, trains, and automobiles? 

During former President Donald Trump’s administration, the phrase “infrastructure week” became something of a running joke thanks to the many, many unfulfilled promises to roll out a comprehensive plan addressing the nation’s aging bridges, highways, and beyond. Less than one year into his term, Biden signed a $1.2 trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure package into law, the effects of which have finally begun to be felt some two years later.

Throughout January and February leading up to his State of the Union address, Biden traveled the country touting the various projects underway, or set to begin, thanks to funding from the infrastructure law. The president’s various appearances were, in part, a conspicuous lead-up to both his annual speech, as well as what’s expected to be the launch of his re-election campaign in the coming weeks. Beyond the tangible impact of repairing the various crumbling tunnels and byways, the White House is betting that by highlighting the Infrastructure bill in particular, they can bolster Biden’s deal-making “success (in) bringing Republicans and independents and Democrats together” as administration Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed recently.

Guns, too?

As a candidate in 2020, Biden campaigned on the promise of sweeping gun control legislation akin to that passed under Bill Clinton in 1994. As president, however, Biden’s ambitions to curb firearm violence have been trimmed considerably, and by the time he signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June 2022, it had been stripped of the assault weapons ban, high capacity magazine ban, and universal background checks that he’d discussed on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, the bill — the first major federal firearms legislation since the 90s — was hailed as both a bipartisan victory (14 House Republicans supported it) and a significant step forward for the long-stagnant push for tighter gun laws.

Although the bill “doesn’t do everything I want,” Biden admitted during the signing ceremony, “it does include actions I’ve long called for that are going to save lives.” Among those actions were increased funding for mental health programs and school security, as well as legislative measures to close the “boyfriend loophole” that let domestic abusers purchase guns, and expanded background checks for certain types of prospective gun buyers. 

So what has he left undone?

Despite campaign promises in both 2020 and 2022 to codify federal abortion access ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson, Biden has thus far been unable to deliver legislative action to ensure reproductive healthcare stymied, in part, by the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, and the unwillingness from members of his own party to circumvent filibuster rules. 

Biden has also failed to deliver on his effort to deliver comprehensive immigration reform, which he’d prioritized on his first day in office with the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, arguing during a recent speech that “congressional Republicans have refused to consider my comprehensive plan.” And while legislators are still working on their own possible immigration plan, “my own personal sense after having dealt with this for years, and most recently in the last Congress, is that Republicans want the issue more than they want a solution,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said last month. 

Biden also conspicuously removed his campaign proposal for free community college from its massive spending bill, admitting in late 2021 that “I don’t know of any major change in American public policy that’s occurred by a single piece of legislation.” But, he stressed at the time, “I’m not going to give up on community colleges as long as I’m president.”

Still, no matter which priorities Biden’s administration has left undone during its time in office so far, the president himself is choosing to focus on his wins. Asked after the midterms whether he planned to change tactics to convince the public that he has, contrary to popular sentiment, accomplished a lot, Biden said he’d change “nothing, because they’re just finding out what we’re doing.”

“The more they know about what we’re doing,” he continued, “the more support there is.”

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WHO says more than 20,000 may die from Turkish earthquake as freezing temperatures hinder rescue efforts

The World Health Organization warned that more than 20,000 people may die following a devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, as freezing temperatures and winter weather continue to hinder rescue efforts. 

Catherine Smallwood, the WHO’s European senior emergency officer, told AFP on Monday night the death toll could see an “order of eightfold increases on the initial numbers,” per The GuardianThis statement was reportedly made when the death toll was 2,600, meaning the total deaths from the disaster would be around 20,800 if this estimation holds true. 

Smallwood noted that the same thing is almost always seen during earthquakes, that being “the initial reports of the numbers of people who have died or who have been injured will increase quite significantly in the week that follows.”

The Associated Press reported that more than 5,000 have already died, with all evidence pointing to that number continuing to skyrocket. This is especially true as the region grapples with freezing temperatures that are putting a damper on rescuers and presenting a significant risk to anyone trapped in the rubble. 

“Everywhere there is snow or rain, and it’s very cold…the weather conditions and the climate is making it very difficult for the rescue workers and civilians,” Turkish correspondent Sinem Koseoglu reported for Al Jazeera, adding that the weather seemed to be the “biggest challenge for everyone.”

The initial 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked south-central Turkey near the Syrian border, and could reportedly be felt in Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, and Cyprus. There have been hundreds of aftershocks reported, at least one of them registering as a 7.5-magnitude. 

Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed, and some “as large as 12 stories high are now flattened,” BBC News reported, adding that “roads have been destroyed and there are huge mountains of rubble as far as the eye can see.”

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La La Land is being adapted into a Broadway musical

“City of Stars” is headed to the city that never sleeps.

A Broadway musical based on the Oscar-winning film La La Land is in the works, Lionsgate has announced. Tony-winner Bartlett Sher, whose previous work includes South Pacific, will direct, while the book will be written by Matthew Decker and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar. It will also feature music by Justin Hurwitz, composer of the film, and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the movie’s songs. 

Directed by Damien Chazelle, the 2016 film, which adopted the style of classic movie musicals of the 1950s, is set in Los Angeles and centers on the romance between an aspiring actress, played by Emma Stone, and a jazz musician, played by Ryan Gosling. It won six Oscars in 2017, the most of any movie that year, including Best Director for Chazelle, Best Actress for Stone, Best Original Score for Hurwitz, and Best Original Song for Hurwitz, Pasek, and Paul. It also received 14 nominations, tying the record for the most of any film in history.

“I’m thrilled to reunite with Lionsgate and the incredible team behind La La Land to adapt the movie for the Broadway stage, the next exciting chapter in its evolution,” producer Marc Platt said. “We’ve assembled a world-class team to create a musical that will delight La La Land‘s millions of current fans and introduce the property to a whole new audience.”

This is also the latest Oscar-winning film headed to the stage after it was announced that CODA, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2022, would get a musical adaptation. Unlike CODA, La La Land did not ultimately win Best Picture, though it was famously incorrectly announced as the winner. So, Broadway fans, don’t be surprised to show up to see La La Land, only to get a Moonlight musical instead.

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Food vendor apologizes for serving culturally insensitive school lunch on 1st day of Black History Month

Food vendor Aramark has apologized for the “unintentional insensitivity” of the menu offered at a New York middle school on the first day of Black History Month. The apology is reminiscent, NBC News writes, of “similar apologies [Aramark] has made for more than a decade amid backlash over racially insensitive menus.”

Though it said the menu was “not intended as a cultural meal,” Aramark acknowledged that “the timing was inappropriate, and our team should have been more thoughtful in its service.” After students and their families pointed out that the meal reinforced negative stereotypes about Black people and their affinity for certain foods, the company apologized for its “mistake,” adding that it “does not represent the values of our company,” per CNN. “We believe this will provide a good learning opportunity to deepen understanding on the impact of systemic biases and negative stereotypes concerning the African-American Community,” Aramark added.

In a letter to parents, Nyack Middle School Principal David Johnson denounced the vendor for the “inexcusably insensitive” lunch menu served on Feb 1st. Instead of what was initially scheduled, the food vendor served students chicken and waffles with watermelon. The menu change “reflected a lack of understanding of our district’s vision to address racial bias,” Johnson wrote. 

Watermelon and fried chicken have been used as racist tropes to mock Black people “since the Jim Crow era,” The Washington Post explains. 

Aramark has been accused of serving culturally insensitive menus at schools before. In February 2018, the company offered a special Black History Month menu that included “two beverages with racist connotations: Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water,” The New York Times wrote at the time. And in 2011, the company promised to send its chefs to cultural sensitivity training after serving chicken and waffles on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the University of California, Irvine. 

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