Archive for February, 2008

7 Women Sentenced in FEMA Fraud

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Seven Jacksonville women convicted of using a national disaster for personal gain have been sentenced for claiming to be among the thousands uprooted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Prosecutors said the women lied to get government aid. Now, two of them, Sharell Lanise Richardson and Rosemary Mackey, are facing jail time.Richardson was recently sentenced to spend four months in prison, pay $8,000 in fines and serve two years probation. Mackey will also spend four months in prison.

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They defrauded all the taxpayers and as such, I don’t think the time sentenced to prison is enough.

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FPL Blames Outage on Substation Fire, Failed Switch

It all happened within three minutes. At 1:08 p.m. Tuesday, a West Dade substation caught fire. A disconnect switch should have shut down the site, but for reasons unknown, the switch failed and the problem spread.

Next, the two huge nuclear reactors at Turkey Point sensed something was wrong and automatically shut down to protect themselves. Then, Florida’s entire grid started turning off lights because there wasn’t enough power.

This is Florida Power & Light President Armando Olivera’s explanation of how an estimated million customers statewide lost power. One switch didn’t disconnect like it was supposed to, and much of the electrical grid was down in a flash.

”That’s the part we don’t have any explanation for,” he said.

In fact, what occurred Tuesday isn’t that unusual. An outage large enough to darken at least half a million homes happens about every four months, according to a 2004 report from Jay Apt, an electrical reliability expert at Carnegie Mellon University.

NOT SINGLE PROBLEM

And that, Apt noted, is a function of the state of the United States’ power infrastructure. The system, he says, is designed to easily adjust itself to a single problem. More than one problem? Lights start blinking out.

”The North American Reliability Council says you have to be able to live with a single outage,” Apt said.

Much of the developed world does much better. Reported Apt in Issues in Science and Technology in 2006, the ”average U.S. customer loses power for 214 minutes per year. That compares to 70 in the United Kingdom, 53 in France, 29 in the Netherlands, six in Japan and two minutes” in Singapore.

Tuesday’s outage also reflects the system’s complexity, said Wade Troxell, an engineering professor at Colorado State. “The electric power grid is like the world’s most complex machine. No one person or entity controls or operates it. It operates much like a living organism.”

On Tuesday, the problem began at the Flagami substation on Flagler Street at 92nd Avenue, an unmanned structure of power lines and boxes across the street from FPL’s Miami-Dade headquarters.

Something sparked a fire. Such incidents happen all the time. A breaker, which can be 10 feet long, shuts down the station, and the grid is programmed to automatically adjust so that few, if any, customers lose power.

”These systems are all designed to handle two contingencies,” said Olivera. On Tuesday, that didn’t happen. ”We still don’t have a full understanding of what happened,” he said.

When the breakers didn’t isolate the problem, it spread quickly to other substations, perhaps as many as 20. At that point, ”a variety of sensors” at Turkey Point realized something was wrong, said Art Stall, FPL’s chief nuclear officer. “They acted to isolate it from the grid.”

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn’t yet measured the duration or degree of the grid disturbance, but the voltage blip was enough to trigger an emergency shutdown of both nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, as well as three other units — instantly unplugging a plant that supplies nearly a half-million homes.

”We may be talking about a few seconds that caused this to happen,” said Roger Hannah, a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman.

Though Turkey Point is South Florida’s largest source of electricity, it depends on off-site power to run most of its critical safety systems, such as pumps and circulating systems that cool the reactors and a stockpile of spent nuclear fuel.

That’s a standard safeguard to ensure plant operators can still shut down a reactor if the plant suffers a problem, Hannah said. Turkey Point, like other plants, also has an array of diesel backup generators if off-site power fails.

AUTOMATIC RESPONSE

FPL said Turkey Point never lost its off-site power, but at 1:09 p.m., the plant’s sensors detected a drop in voltage in transmission lines serious enough to trip an automatic shutdown. Electromagnets opened, dropping control rods over exposed uranium in the reactors and halting the nuclear fission that superheats water used to turn the steam-driven turbines.

”It’s almost instantaneous,” said April Schilpp, FPL’s senior manager for nuclear communications. “When it’s automatic like that, the turbines go off-line and everything goes boom-boom-boom in sequence.”

It’s something akin to the way a household circuit-breaker works, though those are designed to respond to damaging surges of excess power, not threatening drops in voltage.

The two reactors at Turkey Point — as well as a new natural-gas fired generator at the same location — shut down within a minute. That was an intense shock to the electric system — creating far more demand for power in the area’s homes and businesses than there was supply.

To fix that imbalance, the system automatically shut down large parts of the grid, the effects rippling up the state in waves of brownouts and blackouts.

About 196,000 customers in Miami-Dade and Broward lost power, 168,000 in Palm Beach County, 91,000 in Naples and elsewhere in Southwest Florida, and 18,000 in the Daytona area.

Because the grid connects all Florida utilities, Progress Energy Florida, which operates in the central part of the state, had 153,000 customers lose power. Tampa Electric reports about 80,000 customers were affected, mostly in Hillsborough County.

1 MILLION AFFECTED

Altogether, Olivera estimated 1 million customers in the state lost power at one point or another.

By 3 p.m., less than two hours after the initial problem, most of the customers in central Florida had their lights back. By 5 p.m., only about 8,000 FPL customers were still in the dark.

In the infamous blackout of 2003, which stretched from Ohio to New York, a task force blamed the disaster on human error. On whether that was a possibility Tuesday, Olivera said, “I wouldn’t rule out anything right now.”

When asked later how often the disconnect switches are inspected and when they were last inspected, the utility did not have an immediate reply.

Experts say there are other ways to operate an electric grid. Apt, the Carnegie Mellon professor, noted that after France experienced severe outages in the late 1990s from ice storms, “it just built double lines that were tremendously expensive.”

Because France has a single, government-controlled grid, it could do that ”by fiat,” Apt said. In the United States, that might double the cost of electricity, which neither utilities nor customers are eager to see.

Troxell, the Colorado engineer, said some countries are now building a ”smart grid,” which is less centralized and a greater diversity of power makers, such as solar units in homes. “That helps manage the system to prevent cascading from happening.”

Both FPL and NRC said Turkey Point’s automatic safety systems worked as designed and federal site inspectors reported no indication of problems with the reactors, said Ken Clark, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman.

But critics said the outage underlined their concerns about FPL’s plans to add two more reactors at Turkey Point in coming decades.

Dawn Shirreffs, South Florida Organizer for Clean Water Action, said Florida’s Public Service Commission should push for safer alternative sources less vulnerable to minor outages.

”The domino effect that occurred in today’s blackout would not have occurred using a variety of real clean energy solutions,” she said.

Source:  Miami Herald

*Sigh*  I wish that newspapers and television stations didn’t feel obligated to  get quotes from self-proclaimed “experts” blithely claiming that “clean electrical solutions” should be used to solve the problem.  Like what, damnit?  If there were an “alternative” “clean” method of generating power that was affordable, (oh, no!  Not the dreaded “a” word!)  it would already be in use.   Putting $100,000 worth of solar panels on a roof that might sail over to the next county in hurricane season seems, to put it mildly, really stupid.   Something tells me that she isn’t championing small neighborhood pellet bed reactors.

I suppose she wants us to drain the ‘glades and plant ’em in sugar cane to make ethanol which doesn’t seem very environmentally sound but hey, it works for me.  I’m not that fond of skeeters and gators anyway.   

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U.S. Alerted to Cuba Migration, Venezuelan Weapons

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is purchasing ”three or four times” more weapons than he needs, a top U.S. intelligence chief said Wednesday, but there is no evidence so far he is providing arms to Colombian guerrillas.Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that the 100,000 AK-103s and AK-104 assault rifles purchased by Venezuela from Russia are going “into armories.”

Maples and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell also told a Senate panel that the Cuban leadership shift from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl could trigger tensions and even a migration crisis.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, asked if Chávez’s recent weapons purchases, especially the assault rifles, exceeded Venezuela’s defense needs.

”Yes sir,” McConnell responded, “probably three or four times more than what he would need.”

When asked if Chávez could use the surplus to ”destabilize neighboring governments, particularly Colombia” and assist Colombia’s left-wing FARC guerrillas, McConnell said: “Could very well be.”

Maples then interjected, saying U.S. officials had not seen any distribution of rifles to Colombia. ”We have seen them go into armories,” he said. “And we do hear discussion within Venezuela about using asymmetric kinds of capabilities and tactics and empowering the population in some way, in a home guard sense.”

Chavez has argued that he needs the weapons to replace old guns and systems that Washington has refused to supply, and to equip larger reserves and militias for a guerrilla war in case of a U.S. invasion. But the purchases have triggered concerns in Washington and Latin American capitals of a potential arms race and leakage of weapons to neighboring Colombia.

From Russia Chávez has purchased the assault rifles, a munitions factory, 53 helicopters — including a dozen Mi-17 military helicopters — and 14 SU-30MK fighters.

McConnell added that on the purchase of the assault rifles, ”one of the thoughts is [Chávez] forming an internal militia to enforce his authoritarian rule.” But when pressed if Chávez meant to arm his supporters to stifle opposition, Maples said that although “the opportunity is there, we haven’t seen it move that direction yet.”

Martinez then asked if the intelligence chiefs had noted an increase in migration out of Cuba, which on Sunday saw Raúl Castro elected as its new president.

”We’re concerned about it,” McConnell responded, ”but nothing we’ve seen yet.” He added that Cuba was witnessing the old generation “hanging on, hanging on.”

”The key, in my view, is going to be fourth generation,” said McConnell, referring to Cuba’s increasingly restless youth. “They’re thinking new thoughts and they’re asking hard questions. So how do you get from the first generation of the revolution to the fourth generation? That’s going to be the question. And what my concern is there’s going to be some instability in that process.”

A failure by the new Castro government to deliver improvements to Cubans ”could increase concerns,” Maples said. “Something we have to be attuned to . . . is looking for any indicators that the dissatisfaction is going to reach a level where a migration from the island might take place.”

Martinez agreed the migration issue was a threat to U.S. security but noted that Washington should seek democracy and the concern should “not just be the fear of a mass migration.”

Source:  Miami Herald

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Two More Vietnamese with Suspected Bird Flu

  HANOI, Feb. 27 (Xinhua) — Vietnam’s National Institute of Infectious and Tropical Diseases is treating two people from northern Hung Yen and Thai Nguyen provinces, who have developed bird flu symptoms, according to local newspaper Pioneer on Wednesday.    Specimens from a 23-year-old person from Hung Yen and a 48-year-old person from Thai Nguyen, who currently need respiratory assistance because their lungs have been severely damaged, are being tested for bird flu virus strain H5N1, the newspaper quoted Nguyen Hong Ha, vice director of the institute in Hanoi, as saying.

    Initial investigation has shown that the two patients had contacted with fowls before exhibiting bird flu symptoms.

    To date, Vietnam has confirmed a total of 105 human cases of bird flu infections, including 51 fatalities, in 35 cities and provinces since bird flu started to hit the country in December 2003.

    Vietnam currently has eight localities having poultry being hit by bird flu: Thai Nguyen, Quang Ninh, Hai Duong, Nam Dinh, Tuyen Quang and Ninh Binh in the northern region, and Long An and Vinh Long in the southern region, the country’s Department of Animal Health said Feb. 26. 

Source: XinhuaNet

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Drug-Resistant TB Spreading Fast

LONDON — Drug-resistant tuberculosis is spreading even faster than medical experts had feared, the World Health Organization warned in report issued Tuesday. The rate of TB patients infected with the drug-resistant strain topped 20 percent in some countries, the highest ever recorded, the U.N. agency said.Globally, about 500,000 of the estimated 9 million new cases each year — 5 percent — are drug resistant.

“Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable to see rates like this,” said Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of WHO’s “Stop TB” department. “This demonstrates what happens when you keep making mistakes in TB treatment.”

Though the report is the largest survey of drug-resistant TB, based on information collected between 2002 and 2006, there are still major gaps: Data were only available from about half of the world’s countries.

In Africa, where experts are particularly worried about a lethal collision between TB and AIDS, only six countries provided information.

“We really don’t know what the situation is in Africa,” Raviglione said. “If multi-drug resistant TB has penetrated Africa and coincides with AIDS, there’s bound to be a disaster.”

Raviglione said it was likely that patients — and even entire outbreaks of drug-resistant TB — were being missed.

Experts also worry about the spread of XDR-TB, or extensively drug-resistant TB, a strain virtually untreatable in poor countries. When an XDR-TB outbreak was identified in AIDS patients in South Africa in 2006, it killed nearly every patient within weeks. WHO’s report said XDR-TB has now been found in 45 countries.

Globally, there are about 500,000 new cases of drug-resistant TB every year, about 5 percent of the 9 million new TB cases. In the United States, 1.2 percent of TB cases were multi-drug resistant. Of those, 1.9 percent were extensively drug-resistant.

The highest rates of drug-resistant TB were in eastern Europe. Nearly one-quarter of all TB cases in Baku, Azerbaijan, were drug-resistant, followed by about 20 percent in Moldova and 16 percent in Donetsk, Ukraine, WHO said.

High rates of drug-resistant TB were also found in China and India, the world’s two most populous nations that together are home to half the world’s cases.

Drug-resistant TB arises when primary TB treatment is poor. Countries with strong treatment programs, like the U.S. and other Western nations, should theoretically have very little drug-resistant TB.

That is not the case in China, however, where the government says 94 percent of TB patients complete their first TB treatment.

“There’s a huge, gross discrepancy there if they are then reporting 25 percent of the world’s multi-drug resistant TB cases,” said Mark Harrington, executive director of Treatment Action Group, a public health think tank. “They are clearly nurturing a multi-drug resistant TB epidemic and failing to report XDR-TB at all.”

With growing numbers of drug-resistant TB patients, there is concern some national health systems will soon be overwhelmed.

“We are totally off track right now,” said Dr. Tido von Schoen-Angerer, executive director of Medecins Sans Frontiere’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. He said only 30,000 multi-drug TB resistant patients were treated last year.

Experts said new drugs are needed if the outbreak is to be curbed, along with new diagnostic tests to identify drug-resistant TB strains faster — current tests take about a month for results.

WHO said a new diagnostic test able to provide results within a day is being tried in South Africa and Lesotho. If successful, the test could be introduced across Africa in a few months, though new labs would be needed to run the tests.

“Multi-drug resistant TB is a threat to every person on the planet,” Harrington said. “It’s not like HIV, where you are only infected through specific actions. TB is a threat to every person who takes a train or a plane.”

Source: News4Jax

Here’s an even more alarming article from the New York Times health section. 

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23-Year-Old Woman 5th Victim of Bird Flu in Vietnam This Year

The fifth victim is a 23 year old woman from Cam Khe District in the northern province of Phu Tho, who saw the first symptoms of bird flu on February 14 and was hospitalised to a local hospital on February 19. The patient was transferred to the Central Hospital for Infectious and Tropical Diseases in Hanoi of February 21.

 

Tests conducted by the Central Hospital for Infectious and Tropical Diseases show that the patient caught type A/H5N1 flu. The patient died on February 25.

 

Dr. Nguyen Huy Nga, Head of the Preventive Health and Environment Agency, said there were dead poultry around the patient’s house and the patient’s family slaughtered some dead chickens.

Source:  VietnamNet

According to a story in the Canadian Press, however, the lady was a schoolteacher and none of the poultry around the school tested positive for avian flu. 

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Four-Year-Old Egyptian Girl Tests Positive for Bird Flu

A four-year-old girl in Egypt has tested positive for bird flu, the 44th confirmed human case of the deadly disease in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Egyptian health ministry officials say the girl is from the southern village of Sheik Massoud in Minya province.  She was admitted to a Cairo hospital for treatment on Monday.

Of the 44 bird flu cases confirmed so far in Egypt, 19 have been fatal.  Most of the fatalities have been women or girls whose families raise poultry, which brings them into daily contact with chickens or turkeys.

Close to five million Egyptian households depend on poultry for food or income.  The government says this makes it unlikely that the disease can be eradicated despite a large-scale poultry vaccination program.

Four Egyptian women died from bird flu last December.

Source:  VOA

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