A national poll released Monday shows many registered voters were reminded of the importance of national parks during the federal government shutdown. Congress did get more of a bruising on perceived responsibility for the park closures, but the president wasn't left unscathed either.
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This summer, residents of Chicago’s far southeast side noticed mountains of black dust growing in one corner of the neighborhood. It’s petroleum coke -- pet coke for short. That's what gasoline refineries produce as a byproduct of refining gasoline. It’s full of carbon, sulphur and heavy metals.
On August 30, a big wind brought the coke piles to the whole neighborhood’s attention. At a baseball field a block or two away, a little league game ended in a hurry.
"Kids that were playing ball were sent scurrying away because the stuff was getting into their eyes and their face and their mouths and everything," says Tom Shepherd, a volunteer with the Southeast Environmental Task Force. "They had to just get the heck out of here."
He calls the 30th “a day that will live in infamy.” He says, "People were calling 911 and saying, ‘There’s a fire! We don’t know where the fire is, but the neighborhood’s full of smoke.’"
But it wasn’t smoke. It was dust from the piles that had been growing throughout the summer.
They’re a sneak preview of what’s ahead. At least some of the dust came from a local BP refinery. It’s across the state line in Indiana, but it can be seen from the neighborhood. And that refinery is about to triple the amount of pet-coke it turns out. BP is finishing a huge upgrade this fall, to process oil from Canada’s tar sands.
That oil is “heavier” with elements that get refined out and turned into pet-coke. Post-upgrade, the Indiana refinery will turn out 6,000 tons a day. Eventually, it gets sold as fuel, much of it to countries like Mexico and China. But meanwhile, it piles up.
"It’s the most visual part of the success of North American energy independence," says Phil Verleger, an economist who studies energy markets.
That success has both an upside and a downside: Nearby sources of oil should mean lower fuel prices in the Midwest, which has high gas prices. And more piles of pet coke.
"So the question is," Verleger says, "How do we deal with this pile of black stuff that’s bringing us this supply of fuel?"
So far, nobody’s got an answer.
In early November, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a complaint in state court. Her office said the dust from the piles violated environmental regulations. Madigan says she doesn’t know exactly what it would take to make pet-coke a good neighbor. "Well, you know, if it’s not safe where it is, it may have to go somewhere else," she says.
That would be a popular answer on the Southeast Side. Last week, neighbors packed a local church when Illinois EPA officials came to gather input. Again and again, the meeting got stopped by a chant: "Move the piles! Move the piles!"
So far, neighbors have blamed BP and Koch Industries, which owns the yard with Chicago's pet-coke piles. BP and Koch say there’s been a misunderstanding so far. BP says that it wasn’t actually sending more pet coke than usual to the Chicago yard this summer.
Koch has its own explanation for the taller piles: It was moving petroleum coke around in the yards to make room for new safety equipment. It installed big water cannons, which are supposed to keep the piles wet so the dust doesn’t blow around. Making room meant more activity, and some piles got taller for a while.
The numbers about the superstorm's effects keep getting worse. Officials say that nearly 13 million people were affected by Typhoon Haiyan, with at least 4 million left homeless, and that some haven't been reached yet on remote islands.
Far too many doctors in the U.S. prescribe brand-name drugs when generics can be dramatically cheaper. When it comes to lower-income Medicare patients, it can be the taxpayer who covers the difference in price -- up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year. ProPublica senior reporter Tracy Weber has been gathering data about the cost of prescription drugs to the taxpayer, and tells Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio what she found."Medicare has a massive prescription drug program called Part D. It issues one in four prescriptions written in the country every year, and we took a look at the money involved. And we noticed that some doctors were outliers. They were prescribing way more expensively than their peers -- just a small group of these doctors, 900 doctors, were prescribing $1 billion worth of drugs a year. And when we looked closer at these doctors, they had huge percentages of brand name drugs. So while their peers were prescribing 75 percent generics, they were prescribing mostly brand name drugs. We figured out that if those doctors prescribed like their peers, Medicare, every year, could save $300 million just on those doctors."
But why would doctors purposefully prescribe a name-brand over a less expensive, but just as effective, generic?"What we found when we mapped out over the country is there's pockets of doctors who are all prescribing high levels of brand-name drugs, so we went out and talked with these doctors. And, many of them feel, first of all, that the brand-name work better. And many of them, their practices are almost entirely made up of people who are receiving the low-income subsidy. So not only do they not have an incentive, but they believe that the drugs they're prescribing are better."
Weber asked the doctors how they could "feel" a drug is better. She said it boils down to where the doctors are getting their information."We asked the doctors how they received information about the drugs. And many of the doctors said they relied on the representatives from the pharmeseutical companies. And, I must say, when we were visiting them in their offices, often times, there were one, two, three drug representatives lined up at their counters, delivering samples and trying to talk to the doctor. When those drug sales reps come around, they provide studies, but often studies that present their product in the most favorable view. Their job is to get the doctor to prescribe which is often a brand name."
Weber says patients need to be more proactive, and feel free to question their doctors' decisions."Doctors for a long time, this has been sort of the third rail. You're not allowed to ask a doctor what they prescribe. You're not allowed to question that. And, as with all kinds of medical procedures, now hospitals -- as you see -- they have to tell you what their success rates are for certain procedures and such. And you should be able to ask your doctor questions about this. 'Am I getting the drug that has the least amount of side effects? Am I getting the drug that's most cost effective? Am I getting a drug because you got money to speak on behalf of that company?'"
Versions of this story are being co-published by ProPublica, with public radio station WNYC in New York and with Digital First Media web sites and newspapers. ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.
ProPublica has built a Prescriber Checkup widget – search the prescriber data directly:
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