These days, headlines out of the White House and Capitol Hill can overwhelm our news feeds. The PBS NewsHour takes a moment every week to bring you important stories happening beyond the Beltway. Here’s what we’re reading now.
1. Chemical company fined over fires during Hurricane Harvey
Last year, as Hurricane Harvey roared through Texas, chemical fires broke out at the Arkema plant northeast of Houston, sending clouds of black toxic smoke over emergency workers and forcing an evacuation of nearby homes. It took several days for police officers to completely put out the flames.
Arkema makes chemicals used to produce plastic products. At the time, company officials said “no amount of planning” could have stopped its supply of organic peroxides, which must be kept below freezing and were spread across multiple refrigerated buildings and trailers, from catching fire.
But a grand jury last week indicted Arkema and two of its executives for “reckless” behavior before and during the storm, the Houston Chronicle reported. While Harvey dropped an unprecedented amount of rain on the area, the company was not adequately prepared for a flood of even smaller proportions, according to an investigation by the Chemical Safety Board and federal records obtained by the Chronicle. If it was, the fires could have been prevented, prosecutors said.
The indictment charges the company, along with its CEO and plant manager, with “reckless emission of an air contaminant under the Texas Water Code.” If found guilty, the company faces up to $1 million in fines, and the named executives could face years of prison time, the Texas Tribune reported.
In a statement on its website, Arkema said “it is outrageous to assert that Arkema or any of its employees behaved criminally.” An attorney for the company told the Chronicle it planned to fight the charge. The executives are expected to appear in court this week. [The Houston Chronicle]
Cities and states have not only had to deal with billions of dollars in repairs to roads, buildings, homes and other infrastructure, but also with the fallout of other health and environmental damages that may not appear until months or years later.
Separate civil lawsuits have been filed against Arkema since Hurricane Harvey, including by community members, local governments and first responders. One of them is on behalf of 14 residents seeking money for health care expenses and property damages; at least six emergency workers also fell ill while working at the plant, according to another suit. But indictments of corporations for their role in natural disasters, in Texas or elsewhere, is rare.
The American Chemistry Council said in a statement that the indictment “sets an alarming and unreasonable precedent of seeking to hold people responsible for acts of nature.”
But advocates like Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger told the Chronicle that the charges could send a strong message to corporations across the country that “they can’t play fast and loose with safety standards and the protection of the public.”
A May report by the Chemical Safety Board called for better guidance across the industry” to help hazardous chemical facilities better prepare for extreme weather events, like flooding.”
“The chemical industry must be prepared for worst case scenarios at their facilities. We cannot stop the storms, but working together, we can mitigate the damage and avoid a future catastrophic incident,” Chemical Safety Board Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said in a statement.
2. New French law imposes fines for street harassers
Cat-callers in France could soon face a fine of up to 750 euro (the equivalent of $870) for street harassment.
The fine is part of a bill passed by French lawmakers last week that aims to curb sexual harassment. The new bill also gives rape victims bigger window to file police reports, and enacts large fines and potential prison time for people who take “upskirting” photos.
The law will be fully enacted by September.
Several viral videos have shown the extent and potential for violence that arises from street harassment. One of them posted by a woman named Marie Laguerre shows a man cat-calling her on a Paris street, and then slapping her in the face when she told him to “shut up.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has long supported the legislation, and it has also been championed by the French secretary for gender equality, Marlène Schiappa.
Upon its passage, Schiappa told Europe 1 radio “Harassment in the street has previously not been punished. From now on, it will be.” [NPR]
Why it matters: The new laws to punish street harassers are an important step toward detering sexual harassment, supporters say. But it’s not clear how effective they will be as people across industries continue to grapple with the fallout of the #MeToo movement.
Several states in the U.S. have laws that punish street harassers, however they’re not always enforced (or applied consistently), advocates say.
That was also a concern of Laguerre, who told the Associated Press that “the law sends a message, but for me it’s not enough.”
“I don’t think it’s realistic because it means having police officers on every street,”she told the AP, adding that those officers need training to know when to fine for harassment, too.
3. One county in Georgia says every high school and middle school will have a long rifle in the upcoming school year
The Fayette County school board voted to place a long rifle in every county high school and middle school after a string of school shootings last year.
Each school’s gun will be locked in a safe in the School Resource Officers’ office, Melinda Berry-Dreisbach, spokesman for the Fayette County Schools said. Previously, Resource Officers had a gun locked in the trunk of their car, Berry-Dreisbach said, but that would be unhelpful in the case of a school shooting inside the building. [WXIA-TV Georgia]
Why it matters: Putting guns in classrooms was one of the calls to come from February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School, which killed 17 and wounded more than a dozen others.
President Trump originally called for stricter gun control to curb school shootings, but later also endorsed arming teachers, arguing “well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches” should carry firearms in schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also supported that concept, pointing to existing programs that “stress extensive training and safety.”
“I think that’s a model that can be adopted and should be an option for schools, for states, for communities,” DeVos said at a news conference earlier this year. “But it’s certainly not one that needs to be required or mandated for every community.”
Some local governments have passed new laws to allow teachers to carry weapons on campus, over the objections of gun control advocates and teachers themselves. It’s not yet clear what impact those laws have had.
Rocky Hanna, superintendent of Leon County Schools, told the New York Times in March he was against the proposal because “teachers are educators, not security guards,” a phrase that several groups of teachers adopted in their opposition to the idea.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which argues that schools should remain gun-free zones, cites data that shows “the overwhelming majority—nearly 90 percent—of all high-fatality gun massacres since 1966 have occurred wholly or partly in locations where civilian guns were allowed or there was armed security or law enforcement present.”
Adovcates have pointed to incidents like an armed teacher in California who accidentally fired his gun in the classroom and a Georgia teacher who barricaded himself in a classroom and shot at the school’s principal as reasons why guns shouldn’t be allowed on campus at all.
A March poll from NPR found 59 percent of Americans did not want to arm teachers in classrooms. Fifty-eight percent of Americans in an April poll from the PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist said “they would vote against candidates who wanted to arm school teachers with gun.”
Part of the problem in determining whether any kind of gun legislation is effective is the lack of data, as the NewsHour’s Laura Santhanam reported earlier this year.
“If you don’t know what works, you can claim anything works,”Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, told the NewsHour.
4. Community wants more information in fatal police shooting of Joseph Santos
Authorities have not released the name of the Pennsylvania police officer who shot and killed 44-year-old Joseph “Joey” Santos in a local amusement park on July 28, The Morning Call reported.
The officer, who’s currently on paid administrative leave, was responding to a 911 report of a Latino man jumping on cars and interfering with traffic on a busy highway near Dorney Park in South Whitehall Township. The caller also said the man’s arm appeared to be bleeding.
In one of several videos of the encounter, a man believed to be Santos is seen walking away from the officer’s squad car and then turning back around to walk toward him. The officer is heard yelling at Santos to “get on the ground,” but Santos doesn’t comply. As he approaches the officer, Santos lifts one hand up and then lowers it. At that time, the officer (who is on the unseen side of his vehicle in the video) shoots at Santos five times. Santos falls to the ground.
Police have declined to answer whether Santos was armed at the time of the shooting. They also would not confirm whether a weapon was recovered from the body, Lehigh Valley Live reported. In the videos, it doesn’t appear Santos was armed.
Once Pennsylvania state police finish their investigation into the shooting, Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin will determine if the officer’s actions were justified. [The Morning Call]
Why it matters: At a vigil days after Santos’ death, several of his family members were in attendance, many of them wearing white t-shirts from Santos’ clothing line, the Morning Call reported. The shirts said “D.R.E.A.M.,” which stands for “Drugs Ruin Everything Around Me,” a nod to Santos’ past drug use.
“We need to speak for him! He has a voice, he has all of our voices and we’re not going to stop ’til we have full justice,” Ruth Santos, Joey Santos’ former wife, said at the event. “We see this on TV all the time, but never — not once — God, did I think this was going to happen to my family.”
When asked about identifying the officer, Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin has told reporters that he’s not going to release information about the shooting “piecemeal.”
Activists have demanded to know why the officer didn’t first subdue Santos with a non-lethal weapon, like a Taser.
It’s not clear if the township’s officers are all equipped with a Taser, the Morning Call reported. However, the newspaper reported, there may be body camera footage of the incident because officers are equipped with the cameras.
Funeral services for Santos are being held in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, this week.
5. The final report into the Las Vegas mass shooting leaves one major question unanswered
Las Vegas police have released their final report into the Oct. 1 mass shooting that left 58 people dead and hundreds of others wounded.
Authorities announced last week that they were unable to determine why Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire on 22,000 concert-goers from a hotel window.
“This report was authored to provide the reader with more information about who, what, when, and where. Regretfully, this report will not be able to address the why,” the report said.
Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo told reporters in a news conference last week that Paddock was “an unremarkable man” whose movements leading up to the shooting didn’t raise suspicion with authorities.
Video by PBS NewsHour
The sheriff also said the gunman had “signs of a troubled mind, but no troubling behavior that would trigger a call to law enforcement.”
Why it matters: The sheriff said the current evidence has only allowed police to make an “educated guess” into Paddock’s motive. The investigation into the shooting is complete, unless new information emerges, he said.
Las Vegas police concluded in its final report on the Oct. 1 mass shooting that no known motive has been found. This comes more than 10 months after Stephen Paddock opened fire from a hotel on 22,000 people at an open-air concert, killing 58 people and wounded hundreds of others. pic.twitter.com/SErsBNnshP
— Joshua Barajas (@Josh_Barrage) August 3, 2018
Megan O’Donnell Clements, one of the survivors of the shooting, told the Associated Press that she lack closure and not knowing what led Paddock to open fire is “kind of horrifying.”
When asked whether the shooting was terrorism, Lombardo said the act falls under the state’s definition of a terrorist act, but not the federal definition.
“I would personally call it a terrorist act. It had an influence on a certain demographic of people, intended to cause harm to include injuries,” he added.
By federal law, an act of terrorism requires a political, ideological or religious motive. According to the final report, there was “no evidence of radicalization or ideology to support any theory that Paddock supported or followed any hate group or any domestic or foreign terrorist organization.”