Coal ash spill in Tennessee revives debate over its toxicity; spending increased in November.

Coal ash spill in Tennessee revives debate over its toxicity; spending increased in November.

Coal ash spill in Tennessee revives debate over its toxicity; spending increased in November.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 25 2008 6:12 AM

Bush: Regrets, I've Had a Few (Cheney: Not Me)

The New York Timesleads with the dam that broke earlier this week in Tennessee and created what "may be the nation's largest spill of coal ash." As hundreds of acres are covered with the byproduct of coal burning at the Kingston Fossil Plant, environmentalists and officials are fiercely reigniting a debate over its potential toxicity, and residents are unsure about what they should do. The Washington Postleads with new data that show U.S. consumers increased spending in November for the first time since May. Consumers had more disposable income, largely thanks to falling energy prices. But analysts warn this shouldn't be seen as a sign that the economy is making a comeback because energy prices aren't likely to fall much further, and Americans seemed motivated to spend mostly due to the deep discounts that retailers have been offering in an attempt to save the holiday shopping season.

The Los Angeles Timesleads with a look at how the Great Recession is affecting colleges across the country. Alumni of some big institutions are receiving mixed messages from their alma maters, which sometimes insist everything is fine only to turn around and beg for cash. "More than one president has sent out a relatively rosy assessment, only to follow up with news of cutbacks, hiring freezes and canceled projects," says the LAT. While smaller institutions have always been jealous of the huge endowments at big research universities, this may actually work in their favor this time around because they rely on tuition and other fees for most of their budget.

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The spill of coal ash in Tennessee hasn't received much attention in the national media, but it truly is a remarkable event. To get an idea of what it looks like to have an area covered by millions of cubic yards of ash, check out this aerial video from the Knoxville News Sentinel. Despite the extent of the damage, officials with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which runs the plant, still haven't given a clear signal as to whether the sludge is dangerous and has environmentalists once again arguing that the federal government should regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. Even though officials insist the ash isn't toxic, the NYT points out that a draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency found that ash contains carcinogens, and others have said it could pose health risks. And that's without mentioning the potential risk it could have for the environment. Despite widespread reports of dead fish downstream from the spill, officials say they haven't seen any. Environmentalists see this as further evidence that "clean coal" doesn't really exist.

Consumers may have been more motivated to spend in November, but that doesn't mean they were ready to splurge. Discount retailers were highly popular and consumers shied away from big purchases such as refrigerators and cars. "The fundamentals for the domestic and the international economy are still pretty dim," an economist said. "We're seeing nothing in the economy right now that is going to change that trend." As the number of people filing for unemployment benefits hit a 26-year high, consumers are choosing to save more. On the bright side, the new numbers do suggest that retailers were at least a bit successful in their efforts to motivate buyers with deep discounts.

The NYT fronts new data that show how there has been a sharp drop in federal prosecutions of fraudulent stock schemes. The Bush administration has been heavily criticized in the past few months for failing to appropriately oversee financial markets, and the new data appear to support that contention. This year, federal officials will likely bring the fewest number of prosecutions for securities fraud since 1991. Meanwhile, the number of Securities and Exchange Commission investigations that led to a prosecution plunged 87 percent in 2007 compared with 2000. SEC officials insist they're severely short on staff, and FBI officials say that a general shift in priorities toward terrorism means they don't have the resources necessary to focus on financial cases.

In what could be an unprecedented move, President Bush decided to change his mind about the pardon he granted Tuesday to Isaac Toussie, a real estate developer who defrauded low-income buyers, report the NYT and LAT on Page One. The move came after it was revealed that Toussie's family had donated more than $40,000 to Republicans. The NYT points out that the announcement made it clear "that there had been major confusion or miscommunication, or both, within the White House bureaucracy" about the case. Besides the contributions, the pardon also could have caused embarrassment for Bush because Toussie didn't go through the normal procedure to get a pardon and went directly to Fred Fielding, the White House counsel. The LAT highlights that experts don't think it's clear whether Bush has the power to revoke a pardon. But administration officials insist Toussie has no legal recourse to challenge Bush's decision. "A pardon isn't official until the warrant is received by the person who requested it, and that hasn't happened yet," a Justice Department official tells the NYT.

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As Bush prepares to leave the Oval Office, he has given a number of exit interviews that have been surprising in their level of introspection, notes the NYT. The man who used to brush aside "How do you feel?" queries by calling them "goo-goo questions" has been unusually reflective lately and has even admitted he has some regrets. Vice President Dick Cheney, on the other hand, is the same as ever. Well, he is talking more than usual but is "defiant to the end," as the NYT puts it, and adamantly insists he has no regrets about how the administration responded to the Sept. 11 attacks. Insiders say the split reflects how Bush wants to begin shaping his legacy while Cheney aims to become a key conservative voice on national security issues.

The NYT goes inside with a look at how Taliban militants have pretty much taken over NATO's most important supply line into Afghanistan. Most of the supplies for troops in Afghanistan enter through Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, which has turned into "a death trap" in recent months with the arrival of a "brash young Taliban commander." Military officials are trying to find alternative routes since having a safe supply line is critical, particularly considering that the number of American troops in Afghanistan could double next year.

If you have some extra time on your hands this Christmas, be sure to head over to the LAT and read Kim Murphy's account of what happened when her cat went missing. 

The next time that you justify skipping the gym because of your busy schedule, consider this: Obama has managed to get into the best shape of his life while running for president and managing a transition. Now doesn't that make you feel guilty? The picture of a shirtless Obama in Hawaii (the picture is here, in case you're the one person in the world who hasn't seen it) has brought back attention to the president-elect's strict workout schedule, which the WP outlines in meticulous detail. "It's something he takes seriously, and that's why he's in great shape," a friend said. "When people picture him running or whatever, they might think he's just going through the motions. But he goes hard. He's fit. He could convince you he's half his age."

Did you regift this year? No need to lie to TP, it's likely that you did. After all, 58 percent of Americans say they consider the practice acceptable. If regifting was on the menu this year, you've chosen to embark on a perilous path that is full of potential for embarrassing situations. The NYT publishes a guide to regifting that provides some helpful hints but mostly tells some great embarrassing stories. And if you're upset with what you got for Christmas this year, just console yourself with the knowledge that it could have been a lot worse: "One woman was given a meat grinder with bits of meat still in it."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.