Millions of people in the Chinese city of Lanzhou scrambled to buy bottled water this weekend after the city’s water supply was contaminated with Benzene. Levels of the cancer-causing chemical in the city’s tap water were discovered to be 20 times China’s national limit.
All of this comes as China is coming to grips with the environmental damage caused by decades of unprecedented growth. Lanzhou officials are blaming two explosions – one of them 27 years ago, the other 12 years ago – at oil refineries in the area.
They say these explosions caused oil to slowly seep into the groundwater, and that this sudden rise in levels of Benzene shows the decades-old oil is now contaminating the city’s water supply.
“Nearly 80% of chemical industry is built in densely populated city areas,” said Du Sha of Greenpeace China, “So this type of data shows that currently the chemical industry raises the high risk to the public health. The government should take more prevention and more supervised measures to manage these chemical industries.”
Many residents of Lanzhou say the local government should have informed the public much earlier than they did about the water contamination. The state media is now reporting that city officials waited nine days to tell the public that their water was contaminated. The Lanzhou government now says water quality in the city is returning back to normal.
A deadline set by the Ukrainian government passed without gunmen leaving sites they have seized in the eastern part of the country. But the prospect of Ukrainian troops moving in is rattling nerves.
Frazier Glenn Cross, also known as Glenn Miller, is accused of killing three people Sunday during attacks on a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement home.
Easter the holiday is sacred, of course. But Easter the shopping season is also sacred:
"Easter is one of the biggest consumer holidays for retailers," says Kathy Grannis with the National Retail Federation. "We're expecting about 16 billion dollars to be spent on everything on candy to decorations and even new apparel."
With one small detail: just a little bit later than usual. Easter is almost a month later than last year. It's one of those movable holidays, lunar calendar and all.
But quarterly earnings do not follow the lunar calendar. Easter was in Quarter 1 last year, and this year it will be in Quarter 2. So Quarter 1 earnings – and March earnings for that matter – were lower this year compared to last. Rite Aid and Walgreens have already reported that the late Easter has reduced their front-of-store sales for March. But Easter wasn't canceled. It was just pushed back – along with those earnings.
"When financial analysts fail to recognize the shift in the holiday on the calendar, they proclaim Q1 as being burdened with poor results, and then of course Q2 everyone looks like a genius," says Mark Cohen, professor of marketing at Columbia Business School.
Do people really make that mistake? "Believe it or not they make that mistake all the time," he says.
Although this year, for many retailers, Q1 looks bad because it legitimately was bad. "The weakness of the retail economy was a direct outgrowth of a very tough holiday season," says Cohen. There was extreme discounting in Q4, and while that did manage to boost business, it did so at a tremendous price. So the late Easter helped make earnings less than stellar, "but it's not the main reason."
On the plus side, the late Easter might actually be quite helpful. Michael Polzin, with Walgreens, explains "there's a better chance of warm weather, so that helps with things like easter egg hunts, decorations; it's easier to get into the spirit of a holiday if your little girl doesn't have to wear a coat over her Easter dress."
Easter often coincides with the start of the sales season for everything from apparel to patio grills, so there may be a small bump just by virtue of people getting out and about and feeling more like spring.
Over the weekend, members of Congress fanned out across the country for a two-week Easter recess. You're thinking Mai Tais on the beach?
"Probably not," says Riva Litman, a staffer with the House Republican Conference. "Especially not in Eastern Washington."
Her boss, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, made the long trip back to Spokane to talk to voters about issues like the economy and healthcare reform—and to host a few campaign events.
"It's not much of a recess for the members of Congress. They're just in their own districts as opposed to in the capital." Litman adds.
In an election year, breaks from the Hill are a key time to drum up support - and money - back home.
There is $62 billion in outstanding debt belonging to parents who’ve borrowed federal Parent PLUS loans to send their kids to school. The Department of Education is considering tightening the loans’ eligibility criteria, amid concern it’s been too easy for low- and moderate-income parents to get in over their heads.
But the last time it did that, it set off a firestorm.
The thing about Parent PLUS loans is they’re not based on income. Pass a credit check, and you can borrow up to the full cost of attendance. Parents don’t have to prove they can actually repay their loans.
“At the time, I was happy to get it,” says 56 year old Barbara Jones of Boston, who took out more than $100,000 in loans she now says she can’t afford.
“Because then if you didn’t get that, then what would you do?” she asks. “You know, how would you keep your child in school, how would you pay it if you didn’t have any other option than the Parent PLUS loan?”
Jones’s son graduated from Pace University last year. Now mother and son are both in debt for the same degree.
Of course, millions of parents take out PLUS loans; they’re a tool to promote college access. The average outstanding balance is $20,338, according to the Department of Education.
But policy analyst Rachel Fishman with the New America Foundation worries it’s too easy for low and moderate income families to borrow too much, as they try to give their kids a better life.
“That really puts the federal government in a dangerous position of telling them, ‘Sure you can do that,’” she says. “'You can mortgage your future. You’re really close to retirement and we can garnish your Social Security, but fine, we’re gonna to let you take on a loan for $20,000, $30,000 dollars.’”
“We absolutely don’t want parents to get in over their head,” says Cheryl Smith, who works with the United Negro College Fund. “That’s why we think there should be a counseling program. At the same time, we don’t think we should be paternalistic.”
UNCF helps minority students get to and through college. It also lobbies for the private historically black colleges and universities. HBCUs have a lot of low and moderate income students, and Smith says thousands were affected when the government toughened the credit check for Parent PLUS loans back in 2011. She says enrollment fell at some private HBCUs , and HBCUs generally lost millions in revenue, “Directly attributable to fewer students being able to get a Parent PLUS loan.”
Even though parents still don’t have to prove they can repay their PLUS loans, Smith says it’s now too hard to get one.
Still, the larger community is conflicted. Johnny Taylor heads the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents the publicly supported HBCUs. He thinks, at a certain point, Parent PLUS loans should be capped.
“Heretofore we have said to students, ‘Pick the school that you want to attend.’ And frankly the narrative may change to pick the school that you can afford to attend,” he says.
It’s a narrative unfolding within the Department of Education too, which is considering changes to the rules this spring.Shea Huffman/Marketplace
By Shea Huffman/Marketplace