National News

Morgan Stanley Agrees To $2.6 Billion Mortgage-Backed Securities Settlement

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 14:14

The settlement is the latest in a string tied to the mortgage practices that led to the housing bubble, which was mostly responsible for the great recession.

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Baltimore sewers: time bombs buried under the streets

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 14:05

First, a warning: this story is a little icky. 

I’m in Gwynn's Run, a stream in Baltimore, with Michael Flores of the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore. He’s giving me what he calls his sewer tour.  City pipes are so old and cracked, rainwater gets in. Sewers fill up, and the contents spit out manhole covers and into streams.

Michael Flores of Blue Water Baltimore, showing and explaining sewer system overflows in Baltimore. (Scott Tong, Marketplace)

That sewage eventually dumps directly into Baltimore’s harbor. Eww. Chances are, your city has the same issues. You’ve heard about bridges collapsing? This is the invisible infrastructure crisis below ground.

Baltimore’s story goes back a century. It starts with a putrid harbor, described by the Washington Post as “a 2,000 horsepower smell that lays Limburger cheese in the shade.”

“The Baltimore harbor was the toilet of the city,” says Chris Boone, sustainability dean at Arizona State and author of a paper on Baltimore’s sewer history. “Everything would flow down into the harbor. So everything that was coming from overflowing cesspools and privies, everything that was coming from the streets, ran into the harbor.”

The thing was, Baltimore had no money to build a sewer system. Until the Great Baltimore Fire.

Church of the Messiah in flames during 1904 Great Baltimore Fire. 

National Photo Company Collection/Wikimedia Commons

In 1904, one of the worst fires in American urban history torched 1,500 buildings downtown. Crisis created opportunity.

“That fire, what it did was similar to the Chicago fire of 1871,” Boone says. “I think it gave the city and also residents a chance to re-think ‘how do we regrow the city in a way that was even greater than before?’”

Here more from Boone below:

The resources came. The city put up money, as did the state of Maryland. Voters approved a bond issuance. And Baltimore built a state-of-the-art sewer system completed exactly 100 years ago. Out went the stink and in came more than 1,000 miles of pipes. Typhoid was eradicated. Politicians snapped this picture to commemorate the event.

Baltimore leaders celebrate a new sewer system by driving their cars inside.

Courtesy:Munder-Thompsen Press/Archive.org

To understand this progress, you have to step inside the city's sewer waste-water treatment plant. To simplify, raw sewage floats past an initial set of bars to screen out anything from two-by-fours to rats and mice. Then – euphemism alert — comes sludge settling amid solids removal. The plant takes out chemicals and nitrogen, then bleaches and de-chlorinates water before sending it out to the river.

If you’re wondering, yes, it stinks. But it’s also amazing to see what you get for your sewer bill.

 Back River Wastewater Plant, Baltimore.

Scott Tong/Marketplace    

That is, when the pipes work as intended. A century later, it’s like inheriting your great-grandfather’s car. This is what the pros call the water infrastructure “replacement age.” And by one estimate, the national bill will cost $1 trillion.

“It’s like a time bomb,” Baltimore's public works director, Rudy Chow, says. “This old infrastructure, we know it’s going to fail. The question is where and when.”

Hear more from Chow below:

Baltimore has embarked on a $1.5 billion program to replace and rebuild. Jackhammers throughout the city dig up streets and replace pipes, the oldest of which are made of wood and terra cotta.

Sewer main replacement, downtown Baltimore. 

Scott Tong/Marketplace

The federal government is imposing clean water deadlines. It all costs money Baltimore doesn’t have. Federal grants for this kind of work dried up long ago. The city has lost 300,000 taxpayers and rate payers to urban flight in a generation.

“There was no anticipation of deindustrialization,” Boone says. “No anticipation of riots in the 1960s or the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. All these things. And then the suburbanization of individuals looking for better schools. None of that was in the cards.”

So the city has no choice but to raise rates. A typical quarterly combined water and sewage bill has gone from $62 in 2000 to $201 today. Over the century, the city never charged high enough rates to maintain the system. And now the bill is due.

“Politicians always complain, ‘We can’t raise prices because we’ll get political opposition,’” says economist David Zetland, author of "Living with Water Scarcity." “The most common problem with the water system is that they’re not taking enough money in to pay for the system repair and maintenance that matters over a 50-year cycle.”

Hear more from Zetland below:

Chow says future rate hikes are “inevitable.” The city's plan is to spend more of the public’s money on preventive replacement, and less on emergencies. Right now it’s the other way around. Baltimore plans to put itself on a sustainable pace to replace a water main every 100 years.

But change will not come easily. Residents like Danielle Miles of a northwest section of Baltimore complain they have not benefited from any changes. In fact, Miles says sewer disasters come every time a big rain hits. The most recent came in the spring of 2014.

“I noticed the sanitary sewer manhole had water coming up” Miles says. “And at that point in time I knew that my basement was flooded.”

Miles walked in, down to the basement. And she saw.

“Raw sewage, all throughout. It was maybe about, what’s this, a foot? One step. And it was just rising.”

One street over, an upright freezer was floating, upside down, in the home of Anita Moore and her parents. Wedding albums were destroyed.

“My parents have been married for 58 years,” Moore says. “You can’t replace any of those photos. And all our baby pictures. All gone.”

Now, the rainy season is coming again, and Moore says she has no idea if anything is fixed. She and Miles both say they’ve heard nothing from the city. Baltimore’s public works department says pipes in the neighborhood have been cleaned, and that it's a “long-term strategy” to address the situation. A spokesman says in some cases what floods residents’ basements is not raw sewage but storm water.

What everyone agrees on is that this is the price of a century of infrastructure neglect. In this city, it took a mighty fire to galvanize the public and begin a massive infrastructure build. Now these pipes are nearing the end of their engineered lives.

What will it take to rebuild and replace them nationally? Boone is afraid it may take another crisis – on the order of a city burning down – to attract public attention once again.

High Court Leans Toward Religious Protection In Headscarf Case

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 13:44

Did Abercrombie & Fitch violate a prohibition against religious discrimination by not hiring a woman who wears a hijab? The company contends it just has a neutral policy against wearing caps.

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Global Rules Of Greeting Vary, But Biden And Travolta Get No Support

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 13:38

The vice president and the actor are getting panned for the way they greeted women in the past week. That made us wonder: What's the greeting etiquette in parts of the world we cover in our blog?

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What Net Neutrality Rules Could Mean For Your Wireless Carrier

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 13:28

The FCC votes Thursday on rules that would make Internet providers treat all traffic equally. Big wireless companies say that will make it harder to keep their networks from getting too congested.

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What rising interest rates mean for the rest of us

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 13:12

One takeaway from Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s recent testimony before Congress is that she and her colleagues are feeling pretty good about the direction of the economy – good enough to “at some point” consider increasing interest rates.

What will those increases mean for the average American?

The Fed doesn’t set all interest rates, but Michelle Girard, chief U.S. economist at RBS, says the rates it does control impact many others, either directly or indirectly.

Ann Owen, economist at Hamilton College, says that could mean higher rates on auto loans, credit cards, and adjustable-rate mortgages, though increases will likely be gradual.

But if this all sounds like bad news, Ken Kuttner, who teaches economics at Williams College, says the silver lining is that interest rates on savings accounts will increase, too. 

Infections With Dangerous Gut Microbe Still On The Rise

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 13:00

Clostridium difficile sickens nearly half a million Americans annually, killing about 29,000, say federal health officials. They warn hospitals and nursing homes to tighten hygiene protocols.

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An Owl Is Attacking and Injuring Residents Of A Netherlands Town

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 12:59

Drones aren't only the airborne worry in Europe this week. An aggressive owl is terrorizing residents of the Dutch town of Purmerend. Maybe its behavior is due to hormones. Or maybe it's just hungry.

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An Owl Is Attacking And Injuring Residents Of A Netherlands Town

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 12:59

Drones aren't the only airborne worry in Europe this week. An aggressive owl is terrorizing residents of the Dutch town of Purmerend. Maybe its behavior is due to hormones. Or maybe it's just hungry.

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Terrorism Fears Complicate Money Transfers For Somali-Americans

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 12:58

Regulations intended to block money from getting to terrorist groups has led the last bank that handles most money transfers from the United States to Somalia to pull out of the business.

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At VA Hospitals, Training And Technology Reduce Nurses' Injuries

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 12:33

The Department of Veterans Affairs is taking a lead among other hospital systems in the country to keep nurses and other staff from getting injured when they move and lift patients.

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Jordan's Fuzzy Definition Of Free Speech

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 12:25

The government says free expression can combat radicalization. Yet a military court recently sentenced a man to 18 months in prison for a Facebook post deemed insulting to the United Arab Emirates.

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Dissecting A Frog: A Middle School Rite Of Passage

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 12:19

In science classrooms across the country, middle schoolers will take part in an iconic activity this year: frog dissection.

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NHL team wants to put ticket resales on ice

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 11:59

At a Nashville Predators game in early December, Greg Atwood arrived at his seat just like he normally does.

"I typically get there right at faceoff. I walked in when it was dark and when they turned the lights on it was pretty shocking just how much,” said Atwood. “I mean it was a majority red.”  That red was a sea of Chicago Blackhawks fans in t-shirts and sweaters supporting their team.  Thousands of fans chanted “Let’s Go Hawks” 

As a reliable Predators fan, Atwood has been coming to games for 14 years and says he actually doesn’t mind seeing out-of-towners. He says one or two thousand opposing fans are okay, but when they fill up half of the arena, that’s where he draws the line.

The Blackhawks won that night 3-1. It was a rare home defeat for the Predators and team president Sean Henry says the complaints came flying in from fans and players.

“I probably got, I don’t know, 50-75 e-mails; 10-12 phone calls,” said Henry. “People are saying ‘I don’t know if I want to come to the game anymore.”

So now, the team is outlining steps to maximize the Predators gold and navy blue in the stands. The team says it’s considering a mandate that season ticket holders clear it with them before re-selling their tickets.  The team is also offering to buy back tickets to certain games at 10 percent above face value.

“The first opportunity and last opportunity to buy Predators tickets should stay right here in our greater market,” said Henry.

Unlike goods that can be bought and re-sold, many professional teams consider their tickets non-transferable licenses.

The New England Patriots took the online site StubHub to court a few years back  over the re-sale of tickets.  And just last year, the Seattle Seahawks tried to ban anyone with a California zip code from buying a ticket to the NFC championship game, in what some say was an effort to keep San Francisco 49ers fans out.

If the Predators end up doing something similar, not only would that keep out-of-town fans away from the arena, it would likely keep them out of Nashville altogether, meaning downtown hotels might lose out.

 John Fleming is manager of the Renaissance Nashville.

 "I had two reactions. One, as a fan, and I said 'absolutely right', the best thing we can do is protect our home ice and go for it,” said Fleming.

But as someone running a hotel?

"We'll lose some business obviously if we do limit that,” said Henry. “It means we'll just have to find other business"

Season ticket holders are conflicted too. Greg Atwood may not like half the arena filled with rival fans, but he also doesn’t want the team to go overboard with new rules.

 "I spent a lot of money on these tickets and when I buy these tickets they're mine to determine what I do with them,” said Atwood.

The Predators say they’re most concerned with building a championship franchise and a regional fan base that will last for generations. They say keeping home-ice advantage is a key to moving in that direction.  

 

BYLINE: Emil Moffatt

BIO: Emil Moffatt is a reporter and news anchor with WPLN in Nashville.  

As Washington Prepares To Legalize Pot, Congressman Threatens To Arrest Mayor

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 11:51

Mayor Muriel Bowser said the city would continue with its plans to legalize pot at midnight. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, of Utah, said the District would be in "willful violation of the law."

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'Her Calling Was To Help People Understand One Another': Remembering Dori Maynard

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 11:14

Racialicious founder Latoya Peterson has a tearjerker of a tribute to journalism diversity pioneer Dori Maynard.

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Acclaimed Documentary Filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky Dies At 58

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 11:01

Sinofsky and his longtime co-director, Joe Berlinger, are perhaps best known for Paradise Lost, a trilogy of films about three teenagers convicted of killing three little boys in West Memphis, Ark.

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Google grows, its hometown feels crowded

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 10:37

It seems as if the whole of Silicon Valley is beset by one giant case of “Keeping up with the Joneses.”  First Apple announced a massive new expansion to its Cupertino headquarters. Then Facebook bought up 56 acres for growth in Menlo Park, and now it's Google’s turn.

Google’s plans have rekindled old tensions between an industry that is built on growth and a region that doesn’t want to change.

It’s tempting to look at Apple, Facebook, and Google and say that Silicon Valley would be nowhere without them, but that’s not necessarily the case. First the defense industry moved in, then the semiconductor manufacturers in the 1980s, then the dot-com bubble, and now the mobile internet.

"Silicon Graphics has come and gone, Sun Microsystems has come and gone, and companies stepped in to fill their place," says Mountain View City Councilman Michael Kasperzak.  Mountain View is headquarters to some 20,000 Google employees.

Unlike, say, Ford Motor Company a generation ago, companies like Google aren’t necessarily as enmeshed in the local economy. "Google doesn't do anything to generate sales tax, we don't tax the internet, we don't tax searches, we don't tax ad revenue," Kasperzak says. 

He notes there are plenty of other benefits that Google does provide, such as leasing city land and providing funds for local schools.

But, unlike previous eras, when a company with the size and clout of Facebook or Google could essentially own a town the size of Mountain View, population 80,000, that is not the case in 2015.

"To call the Silicon Valley communities new ‘company towns’ may be a bit of an overstatement," says Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly in Pomona.

"As much as the high-tech companies might want that level of control, they don't have that level of control or influence,” says Woo, “and even some of their own employees as voters, wouldn't necessarily vote to support what might be in the best interest of the companies."

Woo says the Googles and Apples of the world have largely resisted the urge to throw their weight around in local politics.  And to its credit, he notes that Google is even talking about ways it might create new affordable housing for its employees.

Eyelashes Grow To Just The Right Length To Shield Eyes

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 09:56

Eyelashes keep dust out and fend off drying breezes, a study finds. To do that they need to be a very precise length. Extra-long fake eyelashes hurt more than they help.

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FBI Arrests Three Men For Allegedly Plotting To Join Islamic State In Syria

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 09:40

The three men from Brooklyn were charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Two of the men had already purchased tickets to Istanbul.

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