Monday, May 30, 2011

Speaking on Maine's history and identity, Freeport, Maine, May 31

I'll be giving my popular Lobster Coast talk on the past, present, and future of coastal Maine tomorrow night -- Tuesday, May 31 -- at the Freeport Conservation Trust's annual meeting.

The event starts at 7pm and is free and open to the public. It's being held at the Freeport Community Center, 53 Depot St. For more information, contact FCT at or 869-1012.

All of my speaking events are always posted in advance at my website, where you'll also find a running bibliography of my articles, and a good deal more information about my work than you'll care to know.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Maine Yankee nuclear waste - an update

For those who followed my stories on the storage of high level nuclear waste at the former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant site in Wiscasset, I've got an update in this week's Portland Phoenix.

While reporting this story for Down East, I noticed that the monthly nuclear safety reports issued by the state nuclear safety inspector had stopped being posted back in September 2010. Now some of those reports have posted at the state's website but, as this week's news brief notes, there are some items that call into question the utility of issuing these reports at all.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Maine TV and radio tonight

A short programming note, for those of you not already tired of hearing me go on about Maine politics, history, and culture:

Tonight at 10pm, the television stations of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network will be airing Linda Cabot's documentary on the people, crustaceans, and creatures of the Gulf of Maine, From the Bow Seat. I'm one of the featured talking heads on account of Lobster Coast, but you'll also hear from Sherm Stanley, Diane Cowan, Steve Kress and other experts. It airs again Saturday at 11 am.

For Portlanders, at 7:30 tonight, I'll be one of the live guests on WMPG's Big Talk, discussing Maine politics with Kennebec Journal columnist Mike Tipping and Sun Journal state house correspondent Steve Mistler (if he can get a free moment up in Augusta.) I understand a podcast will be available later at Tipping's Maine Politics website.

Salt Institute's faculty resign en masse

My former colleagues over at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies tell me that the entire faculty resigned last week, including veteran teachers Rob Rosenthal (director of the radio program) and Kate Philbrick (director of photography), who regular readers may remember for their powerful Malaga Island documentary.

I am not an unbiased observer, having headed the writing program during the 2008-2009 academic year. (I left of my own accord to finish my fourth book.) I'm a great believer in Salt's mission (even if the board has had trouble articulating it): cultivating thoughtful, ethical, honest, and technically skilled storytellers through engagement in real documentary projects. In its nearly forty years of existence, Salt students have produced an impressive body of work, and many of its graduates have gone on to big things in the worlds of radio documentary, documentary photography, and narrative journalism. The institution is an asset to Maine and to the wider, endangered world of thoughtful journalism.

Unfortunately, Salt is not without its problems, the most obvious and longstanding being its near-total dependence on student tuition. A continuing mystery among the faculty when I was there was why the board and executive director Donna Galluzzo were resistant to embarking on a focused development effort, or even to recruit board members with professional development experience. Salt, we were told, was not suited to such a campaign. Perhaps opinion has changed in the two years since I taught there, but the underlying cash flow vulnerabilities clearly have not: last year the faculty shrank by nearly half in an effort to cut costs.

There's also the matter of turnover. Of the twelve full- and part-time faculty and staff who worked at the institution when I was there, Ms. Galluzzo is the only one who remains. The board -- currently chaired by Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz -- might ask themselves if this has been the best outcome for the institution.

[Update, 6/1/2011: The Portland Daily Sun follows up on this story.]

[Update, 7/8/2011: For more on Galluzzo's point of view, there's this from the Portland Phoenix, a story demonstrating the pitfalls of single-source reporting.]

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How does Jack DeCoster get away with it?

For those who've been following my coverage of the infamous egg magnate Jack DeCoster -- and proposed legislation to deny his workers the right to collective bargaining here in Maine -- my story for Down East has just posted over at their website.

As reported here yesterday, the bill in question has lost a key supporter, labor committee co-chair Sen. Chris Rector (R-Thomaston), who is upset that his committee was given less than candid testimony in regards to the DeCoster companies' safety record. The bill was scheduled for a full vote in the Maine House today, but at last report appeared to have been pulled from the line-up.

For those who like to study source materials themselves, there's the August 2010 Food and Drug Administration site inspection report for one of the DeCoster's Iowa farms implicated in the nationwide salmonella outbreak; the Congressional hearings on said outbreak; and Maine Public Broadcasting's report on worker's allegations at DeCoster's Maine farms from this past April 2011.

[Update, 5/25/2011: An additional update to the piece: Mercy for Animals' director of investigations, Daniel Hauff, says DeCoster spokesperson Chris Grimbilas is misinformed about events in Texas (which he put forward as evidence that his companies got the "short end of the stick.")

"No charges or arrests have ever occurred for any Mercy For Animals investigator, as we follow all laws, including recording laws, and use our real information when obtaining employment at factory farms and slaughter facilities," Hauff said.]

Monday, May 23, 2011

Update: DeCoster bill loses key supporter

Here in Maine, the legislature is in session, and one of the stories I've been following is the fate of a bill to help the infamous Maine-based egg magnate, Jack DeCoster, by denying his workers the right to collectively bargain.

In case you've forgotten, Mr. DeCoster was in the national spotlight last summer, when a massive salmonella outbreak was traced back to his Iowa-based farms, and the national media started piecing together his companies' staggeringly long rap sheet of health, safety, immigration, labor, and environmental violations. I have a story on this in the forthcoming Down East, and wrote about the erroneous testimony given before the Maine legislature's labor committee here at World Wide Woodard last week. [Update, 5/24/2011: my Down East story has posted online.]

Now that bill may be in trouble. The chair of the labor committee, Sen. Chris Rector (R-Thomaston), was apparently not pleased to learn that DeCoster's companies' recent record in Maine isn't as sterling as legislators were led to believe. "I have changed my position and am opposing the bill," he told me this morning. "The testimony we received was not full and complete. We did not get the whole story."

Sen. Rector said DeCoster's allegedly respectable OSHA record was "critically important" to the decision to back the bill, LD 1207, which passed the labor committee on a 7-6 party line vote. "To discover that that was not really the case have me great pause." He said he'd be working to defeat the bill in one of a variety of ways. He also noted that, unlike Congress, legislators lack research staff and rely on committee testimony when considering legislation.

This raises another issue: unlike, say, the committees of the Portland City Council, the legislative committees don't post online the (usually written) testimonies they receive so that journalists and others might have an opportunity to scrutinize them and, perhaps, point out falsehoods. Indeed, staff apparently don't have access to scanners to digitize documents, so obtaining records of testimony is difficult, and paper files are often missing submissions. Time, perhaps, to join the 21st century and post PDFs of everything online.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

The latest installment of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has just been released, and introduces Blackbeard as a character. My last book, The Republic of Pirates, reconstructed Blackbeard's life story from original archival sources, along with those of other members of the notorious pirate gang that ever sailed, a group that included "Black Sam" Bellamy, Charles Vane, the gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet.

As a result, I'm often asked about the extent to which the Disney films draw on reality. While I haven't had a chance to see the film as of yet, these were my thoughts in The Christian Science Monitor on how Pirates of the Caribbean III stacked up against the pirates on which it is unconsciously based.

I was also interviewed for this story in tomorrow's Boston Sunday Globe, on why Bellamy could not have built a fort in easternmost Maine, as suggested by the General History of the Pyrates, the 1724 tome upon which much of our pirate myth and legend is based. (The Globe writer left out the other part of my position: that a pirate gang probably did build some sort of temporary base in Machias, it just wasn't Bellamy's.)

For more on pirates, consider visiting my Republic of Pirates website.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Jack DeCoster, Maine legislators, and faulty testimony

As I reported a few weeks ago in the Portland Phoenix, the infamous egg magnate Austin "Jack" DeCoster has some friends in the Maine state legislature, which has been considering a law to help out his companies. That initiative may get voted on as early as today.

I have a magazine piece about all this in the forthcoming issue of Down East, but readers won't see that until after the legislature votes on L.D. 1207, an act that will free Mr. DeCoster's companies from the worry that their workers might one day unionize. The Down East article sheds light on the question many have about Mr. DeCoster: how does he keep getting away with it? [Update: 5/24/2011: the Down East story is now online.] But there are a couple timely details to report straightaway.

First, when members of the legislature's Labor Committee met to consider the bill, they received a remarkable amount of erroneous testimony. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dale Crafts (R-Lisbon), a labor attorney hired by the company to "investigate" its own record, and two company officials told the legislators that the company had had a clean record in Maine for ten to fifteen years, and suggested, stated, or implied that no significant problems had been turned up by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (or OSHA).

A few minutes on Google reveals this not to be the case. In reality, DeCoster's Maine operations have been fined by OSHA multiple times over the past decade for serious and repeat violations of workplace safety and other issues. These include $344,210 in June 2002 for a range of serious workplace safety infractions; $108,500 in August 2004 for "willful, repeat and/or serious violations"; and $150,000 in August 2008 for a "disregard for basic, commonsense safety procedures and employee protections [that] is as astonishing as it is unacceptable."

This, of course, leaves aside far more serious transgressions by Mr. DeCoster's companies in other states, including responsibility for a salmonella outbreak that sickened over 1900 people and triggered the recall of more than half a billion eggs. It also ignores fines for animal cruelty and law suits by neighbors over the past decade here in Maine.

I gather that it's not illegal to give false testimony before the legislature, which means legislators ought to spend a few minutes on the Internet checking out what they've been told.

[Update, 5/23/2011: As a result of this report, Sen. Rector says he is withdrawing his support for the bill.]

Monday, May 16, 2011

Eastern Maine: the Kitty Hawk of Tidal Power

The Bay of Fundy has the world's highest tides, so perhaps it's not surprising that a new and more promising generation of tidal energy generating devices is being tested there. But within the moon-wracked estuary -- most of which is in Canada -- it's a company in eastern Maine that's become the apparent front-runner, beating out older, larger European competitors.

My story in the new weekly print edition of The Christian Science Monitor has the details on the Ocean Renewable Power Company, their tests to date, and what the Fundy tides did to their competition. It's also just come up online, for the cellulose averse among you.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Two novels present Maine as it is

In my bimonthly Working Waterfront column, I discuss two new novels that seek to present Maine as it is, rather than as it should be: Jim Nichols' Hull Creek (Down East Books) and Crash Berry's Sex, Drugs, and Blueberries (Maine Misadventures). The piece is in the new issue, out last week, and just posted online. Read and enjoy.

And, while on the topic of books, my wife and I have the first-ever-signed-by-author copy of The President is a Sick Man (Chicago Review Press), the new book from Matthew Algeo. Mainers may remember him as a past host of MPBN's Maine Things Considered, Americans as a past reporter for American Public Media's Marketplace, and readers everywhere as the author of Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure. My wife's had time to read it and gave a thumbs up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A hopeful sign for Maine politics

Mainers have been justly proud of their political culture which, compared to other parts of the country, has been remarkably civil, featuring lawmakers who often seem more interested in finding solutions that help the state's people, than getting caught up in partisan death matches, hyperbolic assertions, outright lies, and appeals to humanity's worst instincts. Augusta has many problems, to be sure, but nothing like those in Albany, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C.

But in recent years the worst pathologies of national politics -- elections awash in a sea of soft, difficult-to-trace soft money, the drafting of bills and gubernatorial policy being outsourced directly to corporate lobbyists and special interest think tanks, legislative initiatives that represent the interests of campaign donors rather than voters -- have infected the state. Gov. Paul LePage's administration has been a vector for some of the worst viruses, but plenty of others were quietly metastasizing in the body politic during the Democrats' long watch.

But don't give up on Mainers, yet. Yesterday, Rep. Kathleen Chase (R-Wells) asked a key legislative committee to kill her controversial immigration bill, modeled on the infamous Arizona statute. The reason is moving, even for cynical political observers like myself: she had an emotional, occasionally fiery face-to-face meeting with immigrant advocates Rachel Talbot Ross (of the Maine chapter of the NAACP) and Alyisa Melnick (of the Maine Civil Liberties Union) and, after a few days of contemplation, recognized the harm the bill would have done to people unlike herself.

MPBN's Josie Huang has the story, and its worth listening to the original three minute audio version. If empathy can survive in the corridors of power, there's hope for us all.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Nuclear waste, power, and New England, a Post-tsunami look

With Japan still combating the worst nuclear power disaster since Chernobyl, Americans have been reintroduced to the dangers inherent in the nuclear fuel cycle, in which events considered too improbable to take seriously can have horrific implications.

With that in mind, I've taken a look at Maine's nuclear risk exposure, both from the high-level waste stranded in Wiscasset and from operational nuclear plants just over our eastern and southern borders. The results are in the June 2011 issue of Down East, which arrives on newsstands this week, and is already available online.

For those wishing to do further reading thereafter, try starting with the documents section of the Maine Yankee website and the monthly safety reports from the State of Maine's nuclear safety officer.

As I previously reported in the Phoenix, there was recently an interruption in the flow of the latter documentation, which is required by Maine law. Since then, reports for last October, November, and December have posted, meaning the site is still roughly three months behind its usual reporting schedule. At a glance, the reports contained nothing unusual, except that both the October and November 2010 reports had references to condition incidents considered too sensitive to disclose to the public. Having read all prior monthly reports, I don't recall seeing such references in the past. Perhaps these incidents, whatever they were, have some bearing on the delay in the filing of the reports.Link

Friday, May 6, 2011

Portland: State approves weakened working waterfront protections

Earlier this year, I reported on how city officials in Maine's largest city, had weakened working waterfront protections at the behest of pier owners. Presented with the option of excluding the pier ends themselves from zoning changes -- but opening up the valuable lots along Commercial Street to a wide range of developments -- the majority of Portland city councilors decided there was no need for caution.

State officials from the outgoing administration of Gov. John Baldacci warned they would likely not approve the changes, but most observers expected that under Gov. Paul LePage, developers would likely trump fishermen when the zoning changes were reviewed. And, indeed, this is precisely what happened, as announced today by City of Portland spokesperson Nicole Clegg:

City of Portland
389 Congress Street
Portland, Maine 04101
CONTACT: Nicole Clegg, 207-756-8173, 207-272-4477 (cell)

May 6, 2011

Maine DEP Approves Changes to Waterfront Central Zone

PORTLAND, Maine – Today, the City of Portland was notified by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that the city’s request for zoning amendments under the Shoreland Zoning Program has been approved. The Waterfront Central Zone amendments expand opportunity for development while continuing to protect working waterfront uses and infrastructure.

“Today’s announcement marks the end of the successful planning process and the beginning of new opportunity for the city’s waterfront,” stated City of Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones. “We appreciate the time the Maine Department of Environmental Protection took to both provide input during the planning process as well as review and grant approval to our amendment request.”

“For more than 20 years, Portland has strived to strike the right balance between protecting the character defining maritime uses that we love with other development that increasingly characterize the city’s new economy. We sought equilibrium by creating a mixed-use waterfront that supports our marine-based industries and as a result have created a dynamic waterfront that values the many industries for which our piers are their lifelines. It goes without saying that we are proud of the city’s waterfront and the local policies that support it.”

“The changes approved today are the direct result of the hard work and commitment of the stakeholders, city staff and the City Council to work collaboratively in developing policy that would present new development potential while protecting the city’s working waterfront. We took great pains to insure that the Waterfront Central Zone process involved everyone and while we may each have had our own oar, we all agreed to pull in the same direction. Because whether you are a fisherman or a restaurant that prepares the fish; a lobsterman or a tour guide taking a group of people on a boat to pull traps; a tugboat operator or a bus driver taking cruise ship passengers to tour the lighthouses, we are all connected and depend upon each other’s success to make our economy work. Just as Portland creatively navigated economic challenges of the twentieth century, today, we enact new policies that preserve our working waterfront and build our economy for the twenty-first century,” concluded Mavodones.

Portland’s Central Waterfront, located west of the Maine State Pier and east of the International Marine Terminal, is home to fifteen piers, dozens of marine and non-marine businesses, and is the center of the region’s fishing economy. The zoning amendments for Portland’s Central Waterfront were developed to protect traditional marine business while allowing other compatible uses for development.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Maine: a Senate candidate's financial priorities

Here's another one from the Can't Make This Stuff Up Department, which has been sadly expanding its footprint on the Maine political scene of late.

Louis Maietta, the Republican candidate in the special election to replace the retiring state senator for South Portland, has a company under bankruptcy protection. He owes the City of South Portland over $14,000 in unpaid taxes. He reportedly has two court judgments against him to return $770,000 to a 96-year old woman over whom he once had power of attorney.

But MPBN couldn't reach him for yesterday's story because -- wait for it -- he's in the Turks & Caicos Islands attending his daughter's destination wedding.

You'd think this apparent lack of fiscal responsibility would concern the GOP, which hopes to pick up the seat previously occupied by Democrat Larry Bliss. But state party chair Charlie Webster had this to say to MPBN: "Who's somebody sleeping with or where they moved here from or how much debt they have or if they owe money to somebody--those things are not significant," Webster says. "The question is, he capable of representing the district? He did it in the House for a couple years. He's a successful businessman, well-known in the community."


[Update, 5/11/2011: Maietta was defeated by his Democratic challenger, Cynthia Dill, by more than 2-1.]