An environmental group says it has detected dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals in a North Carolina river following one of the worst coal ash spills in U.S. history. Despite assurances from Duke Energy that the water remains safe to drink, the Waterkeeper Alliance said it found arsenic levels 35 times higher than maximum levels set by federal regulators. On Monday, Duke Energy estimated up to 82,000 tons of coal ash had spilled, but the flow has continued all week, despite efforts to staunch it.
In news from Syria, an operation to evacuate trapped civilians from the besieged city of Homs is underway after government forces and rebels agreed to a ceasefire. U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq said the pause would also allow the delivery of aid.
Farhan Haq: "We welcome the reports that the parties have agreed a humanitarian pause to allow civilians out of and aid into old Homs city. The United Nations and humanitarian partners had pre-positioned food, medical and other basic supplies on the outskirts of Homs, ready for immediate delivery as soon as the green light was given by the parties for safe passage."
A top State Department official has apologized to her European counterparts after she was caught cursing the European Union in a leaked audio recording that was posted to YouTube. The recording captured an intercepted phone conversation between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe. Nuland expresses frustration over Europe’s response to the political crisis in Ukraine using frank terms.
Victoria Nuland: "So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the U.N. help glue it. And, you know, F—- the EU."
Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland is also caught on the tape showing just how involved the United States is in Ukrainian politics. She gives her blunt assessment of Ukranian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko.
Victoria Nuland: "I don’t think [Klitschko] should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea."
The leaked recording emerged while Victoria Nuland was in Ukraine, where she met with President Viktor Yanukovych and handed out food to opposition protesters. The Obama administration has suggested Russia is behind the leak. A Russian official, meanwhile, has accused the United States of "crudely interfering" in Ukraine. The spat comes as the Winter Olympics open today in the Russian city of Sochi.
Senate Republicans have blocked progress on a bill that would have restored jobless aid to 1.7 million unemployed people who saw their benefits expire in December. The bid to restore the benefits fell just one vote shy of passing.
In the Republican-controlled House, Speaker John Boehner has dampened hopes for a long-awaited bill to overhaul the immigration system. Boehner spoke at a news conference on Thursday.
Rep. John Boehner: "The president seems to change the healthcare law on a whim whenever he likes. Now he’s running around the country telling everyone that he’s going to keep acting on his own. Keeps talking about his phone and his pen. And he’s feeding more distrust about whether he’s committed to the rule of law. Listen, there’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws, and it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes."
A new report says Iraqi authorities are illegally detaining thousands of Iraqi women and subjecting many to torture, rape and threats of sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch said women reported being kicked, hung upside down, beaten on their feet, given electric shocks and sexually assaulted during interrogations by security forces. Sarah Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch described the findings.
Sarah Leah Whitson: "We have found dozens of cases of women who said they signed confessions due to torture. We have ourselves documented their torture on their bodies, seen the marks left behind. We have talked to judges who themselves have verified being put under pressure to convict women without evidence. In Iraq still, there is an abiding sense of absolute impunity for the security services, which is blessed and sanctioned by the government. Until Maliki makes clear that he will not tolerate torture and abuse, either in Iraq’s prisons or in Iraq’s police stations, we can expect this to continue."
Parts of Latin America are facing a spate of extreme weather. In Bolivia, torrential rains and floods have killed 38 people and left many others homeless. More than 40,000 households have reportedly been impacted by the rains since October, five times the total from last year. Parts of Brazil, meanwhile, are seeing their worst drought in half a century; hundreds of thousands of cattle have died. January was the hottest month on record in parts of Brazil, including the city of São Paulo.
In the United States, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned climate change is already having an impact on U.S. farmers. On Wednesday, Vilsack unveiled a series of measures aimed at assessing the damage from a changing climate.
Tom Vilsack: "When you take a look at the intensity of the storms that we have seen recently and the frequency of them, the length of drought, combined with these snowstorms and the sub-zero weather that we’ve experienced, the combination of all those factors convinces me that the climate is changing. And it’s going to have its impact, and will have its impact and is having its impact on agriculture and forestry."
A former portfolio manager for SAC Capital has been convicted on all counts in what the government has called the largest insider trading case in history. Mathew Martoma was charged with conducting illegal trades based on inside information about the development of an Alzheimer’s drug, netting $276 million in profits and averted losses for the firm. He is the eighth current or former employee of SAC Capital to be convicted on insider trading charges. He could face up to 20 years in prison.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved attorney Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. He previously served in top posts with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and, along with other attorneys there, represented prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal – a move some Republicans unsuccessfully used to try to discredit him.
In New York City, activists gathered to protest New York’s Fashion Week on Thursday, demanding better wages and conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh. The demonstrators called for U.S. brands whose clothing was made in the Rana Plaza factory complex to compensate relatives of the more than 1,100 workers who died when the building collapsed last April. Michelle Flores of 99 Pickets spoke at the event.
Michelle Flores: "Fashion Week here in New York is a spectacle of luxury, and I think that there is a need to draw attention to where these clothes will get made. And it’s really relevant, I mean, across the supply chain, whether you are an independent designer who can’t afford to compete with the major companies and the major brands, who will then send those designs abroad to be produced in factories where workers don’t have a voice. So I think New York Fashion Week is really important for that reason. Some of the brands who will be here this week are brands whose clothing was made in those factories where these tragedies happened in Bangladesh."
The Illuminator art collective later projected images of the Rana Plaza collapse victims onto buildings in New York City. The protests came the same day as a new report detailing how garment factory owners in Bangladesh threaten and intimidate workers who try to form unions. Workers told Human Rights Watch they faced sexist insults, death threats, physical attacks and intimidation that forced them to resign after they tried to organize.