Saturday, September 28, 2013

Explaining Nestle/Fryeburg water controversy on Al Jazeera America

I was the in-studio guest on last night's The Stream on Al Jazeera America, the new, much talked about cable television news channel owned by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network. Alas, I didn't get to see the station's new New York studios, as the show is produced in Washington, D.C., but to get a sense of the channel's budget and ambitions, consider that the host who interviewed me, Lisa Fletcher, was poached from ABC and has won both a Peabody and an Edward R. Murrow Award. Soledad O'Brien is a special correspondent for the network.

We were discussing the controversy surrounding food-and-beverage giant Nestle's proposed 25-to-40 year contract with the local water utility in Fryeburg, Maine, the subject of an in-depth Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram story published earlier this month, and the related controversy over the conflicts of interest of the regulators who are supposed to evaluate the contract.Two Fryeburg residents and the head regulator, PUC chairman Tom Welch, joined us via the magic of the interwebs. Nestle declined to participate.

The full episode isn't up online, but as soon as it is, I'll add it here.[Update, 10/8/13: So far, the best I've found is this fragmentary form of a clip at Internet Archive.]

Friday, September 20, 2013

Updates to Nestle/Fryeburg and Syria/Maine virus stories

In today's Portland Press Herald I offer updates on two stories I've been covering.

The first is updating the controversy surrounding the proposed contract between Nestle Waters North America and Fryeburg, Maine's (privately-held) water utility. As reported earlier this month, the case is in jeopardy because of an unusual number of conflicts of interest amongst the regulators tasked with reviewing the case. The key regulatory figure, today's story reports, has postponed a self-imposed deadline to decide if he will recuse himself.

The second is on Maine Biological Laboratories, a firm that shipped Newcastle disease vaccines to Syria in 2001-2002 in violation of federal laws and regulations. As reported last week, Newcastle disease has been the subject of past bioweapons researcher's efforts to create a weapon to use against an enemy's poultry industry. (The disease is not a threat to humans.) But in today's story an expert explains why the form and state of the viruses sent to Syria in MBL's vaccines almost certainly wouldn't have been useful to such researchers.

Read on, if you wish....

Saturday, September 14, 2013

On pirates in Connecticut, Britain, and video games

The golden age pirates, the subject of my third book, The Republic of Pirates, are returning to the zeitgeist with gusto. Yes, there's the NBC series based on the book coming in February, with Neil Cross writing the script and John Malkovich playing Blackbeard, but that's not all. Consider:

There's a worldwide publicity drive afoot for the new Assassin's Creed video game release, Black Flag, which is also set among the Golden Age Pirates. This week, The Telegraph of India interviewed the game's chef scriptwriter, Darby McDevitt, who kindly plugged Republic of Pirates: "Colin’s book provided us with the answer to one crucial question we had –– how do we get all of the most famous pirates in history together in the same story? It turns out that The Republic of Pirates was the answer." (For more on the golden age pirates, enjoy my recent Game Informer interview.)

Meanwhile, UK's PanMacMillan has revealed the forthcoming publication of the UK and Commonwealth edition of Republic of Pirates. The release date is set for January 2014, just ahead of NBC's "Crossbones." As is often the case in Britain, it's going straight to paperback, retailing for just £8.99, or about the annual wages of an ordinary sailor in 1715. (Thank you, inflation.), an online sweatshop for freelance writers, today named "Crossbones" one of the "top five promising premises for the fall tv season", which is even more impressive given that it's a mid-season replacement, so not out in the fall at all. "Old ‘Blackbeard’ is played by the incomparable John Malkovich," the writer notes. "‘Nuff said." I'd actually add a bit about writer Neil Cross being the creator of BBC's crime drama "Luther" too, but point taken.

Finally -- and unrelated to any of the above -- The Hartford Courant ran this piece on pirates in Connecticut and approaches, drawing heavily from an interview I did with them earlier this year.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Did a Maine firm seed a Syrian bioweapon?

A Maine firm illegally shipped materials to Syria a decade ago which may have helped that country develop a biological weapon.

The New York Times reported Saturday that Maine Biological Laboratories in Winslow provided materials that could have been used as precursors for Syria's chemical weapons program.

But as I report in today's Portland Press Herald, the materials in question were not helpful either for creating a chemical weapon or for making a weapons for use against humans. Rather, the Maine company provided Syria with a virus that weapons researchers have studied for possible use against enemy agricultural sectors, killing poultry to diminish human food supplies. The company was fined more than $500,000 and eight executives plead guilty and went to prison.

Read on for details.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Maine's "laptop program" becomes a "tablet program"

I'm remiss in posting last week's story on the launch of the fourth incarnation of Maine's historic "laptops in schools" program, the first in the nation -- and possibly the world -- to put a computer in the hands of every public school seventh and eighth grader.

This year's relaunch was marked by controversy. As previously reported, Gov. Paul LePage sought to end the program altogether, but was talked out of it by his (now departed) education commissioner, Steve Bowen. The governor then personally intervened in the selection process, delaying new contracts by weeks and, ultimately, selecting the fourth-ranked device, because it was the least expensive Windows-based option. But he also allowed schools to chose from that laptop's competitors, the Apple iPad and Apple MacBook.

So how's the launch gone?

In terms of getting devices deployed -- something school districts were worried about given the delays and confusion surrounding the new contract -- it's gone extremely well. Schools are optimistic about their respective devices too.

But if Gov. LePage sought to switch Mainers over to Windows-based systems -- as internal administration correspondence has shown was a priority -- then not so well. Ninety percent of schools opted not for the state's official choice, but for Apple products, and sixty percent chose the iPad. But I've said too much already. Just read the story from last Wednesday's Portland Press Herald.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Nestle, Poland Spring, and conflicts at the Maine PUC

Nestle Waters North America, subsidiary of the world's largest food and beverage company and owner of the Poland Spring brand, has been locking horns with some in the Fryeburg, Maine area for a decade now.  The story has been irresistible to outsiders: small town with family-controlled private water utility divided over the bulk sale of local groundwater to major bottler. It's been the focus of a popular book (Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania) and an award-winning documentary (Bottled Life) and a host of newspaper and magazine stories.

The latest chapter has Nestle and the local water utility seeking regulatory approval for a 25- to 40-year contract that would stabilize cash flow to the utility and lock in an important supply for the bottler. But as my story in today's Maine Sunday Telegram reports, the regulators have ties to the company, with all three Public Utilities Commission members and the public advocate (whose office represents ratepayers in PUC proceedings) having links to the company, most of them via Maine's largest law firm, Pierce Atwood, has been cropping up in my stories frequently of late.

How did it happen and what will come if it? Read on and find out.

[Update: 9/2/2013: One correction to the print edition: there have actually been five previous public advocates in Maine, not four as I stated, and Gordon Weil was the first of them. My list missed the third of them, Paul Frizsche, who had previously worked with Pine Tree Legal Assistance and, thus, was also "consumer side" in his background.]