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Fire at Chevron Rig in Nigeria Called 'The Worst in African History'

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A gas fire that burned for 46 days off Nigeria’s coast has been extinguished according to the Chevron Corp of San Ramon, California, but a full clean up is far from over.

The oil company rig exploded Jan. 16, killing two people before it collapsed into the sea. The explosion started a fire on the ocean surface but the damage reached a village some six miles away.

Fishermen in Koluama complained of fumes, dead dolphins on their white sand shore. Drinking water and fish tasted like fuel, they said.

“The gas is inside the fish,” said Bravely Salvage, youth chairman for the village. “After eating the fish you feel like somebody who drunk diesel, you feel dizzy.”

“There are very clear ecological impacts, that are not hidden, that are very visible,” said Nnimmo Bassey, chair of the environmental advocacy group, Friends of the Earth International. He cited dead fish and a beached whale. “If one whale dies, it means several thousands of smaller species have been impacted.” The fire, he said, was “the worst in African history in terms of gas burned.”

Chevron said its tests hadn’t found pollution in the air or water but that it would hire investigators from a nearby Nigerian university to conduct further studies.

The United Nations Environment Program in August estimated it would take 30 years and cost $1 billion to clean up oil spilled over decades into Nigeria’s river deltas. Oil companies and Nigeria’s government should share the cost, the U.N. group said.

Weaponry Stored in Congo Neighborhood Ignites Causing Massive Loss of Life

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

An armory packed with shells, rockets, and other munitions exploded with an ear-splitting blast in a densely populated neighborhood of Brazzaville, the Congolese capital. At least 246 people were reported killed in the disaster. Firefighters fought the blaze for close to 48 hours.

The huge blast seen on national television showed the destruction of every single building within a 1.25 mile radius, including a tank regiment, three schools and two churches that had been conducting their Sunday services nearby.

Survivors in Brazzaville described the scene as ‘apocalyptic’ as twisted sheets of metal littered the streets while churches, hospitals and homes were left in ruins.

Congo’s director-general of health, Prof. Elira Dokekias, told AP that the capitals’ hospitals were treating 1,340 injured people and that 60 were awaiting urgent surgery.

The fire appeared to threaten another depot just 100 yards away holding even more lethal weapons, which could also explode.

The spread of munitions stockpiled in residential areas was the subject of recent U.S. State Dept. fact sheet “Dangerous Depots: A Growing Humanitarian Problem”. Since 1990s, catastrophic explosions at arms storage facilities have increased around the world with some 218 known incidents resulting in more than 4,700 fatalities and nearly 5,700 injuries. The proliferation of weapons worldwide is likely to increase the problems of finding safe storage for dangerous arms.

CFPB Director: We Can Help Americans Dig Themselves Out of the Financial Crisis

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By Charlene Crowell, NNPA Columnist –

(NNPA) Although the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act requires regular reporting to Congress by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the still-new agency is actively working to engage other federal and state officials too.

On March 6, CFPB Director Richard Cordray reached out to the nation’s state attorneys generals to share the Bureau’s recent progress and also request continued collaborations to protect the nation’s consumers. In a keynote address before the National Association of Attorneys General, Director Cordray heralded strategic partnerships, special initiatives and shared plans for new areas of action.

“Our goal is straightforward but the responsibility looms large,” said Director Cordray. “We are determined to make consumer financial markets work better for all Americans, for the honest businesses that serve them, and for the economy as a whole.”

In recognition of the collaborative efforts with state attorneys general in reaching the recently-announced mortgage settlement, Cordray assured officials that mortgage markets will remain an urgent CFPB priority.

In addition, CFPB will soon require mortgage servicers to improve the clarity of billing statements. Servicers will also be required to provide consumers with written, advance notice of interest rate adjustments on hybrid, adjustable-rate mortgages. Currently, as many as 10 million mortgage borrowers are at risk of default and nearly 4 million are more than 90 days delinquent.

Administratively, CFPB is now organized into functional teams across several lending areas for research, supervision and enforcement. In addition to mortgages, these teams will examine credit cards, payday loans, overdraft fees and an emerging consumer issue – debt settlement.

A newly-proposed rule that has yet to take effect will supervise all debt collectors in the United States with more than $10 million in annual receipts resulting from collection activities. Once final, the rule will enable CFPB’s supervision team to examine and determine whether debt collectors are complying with the law.

“While debtors need to pay back their creditors,” said Cordray, “the methods used by some debt collectors are just unconscionable. Harassment. Inexcusable language and threats. Repeated late-night phone calls. . . Some of this activity is downright illegal, and none of it comports with any proper vision of a civilized society.”

A December 2011 study by the Better Business Bureau found that consumer complaints on debt collection jumped 17 percent in just one year. Additional findings from the study included:

· Debt buyer-collectors pay pennies on the dollar for billions of dollars in delinquent debts that have been charged off and then try to collect the face amount of the debts.

· Income increased an average of 58 percent in one year for two large debt buyer-collectors.

· After unsuccessful oral or written attempts to collect a debt, collectors have filed suits in courts, often obtaining default judgments, and then garnishing the wages or attaching bank accounts of the debtor.

· The suits are often filed with scanty or false information regarding the debt, and sometimes are backed by affidavits which are robo-signed at the rate of hundreds daily per worker by employees who have no knowledge of the debt.

CFPB intends to work closely with state attorneys general along with the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice on debt collection practices.

According to Corday, “Our goal is to help the honest debt collectors do their jobs responsibly and see that the rest are either rehabilitated or run out of business once and for all. Until we do so, we will be failing all those people who are counting on us to change the world for the better – including ourselves.”

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org

Consumers Welcome CFPB Scrutiny of Bank Overdraft Practices

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CFPB Roundtable in New York addresses practices; advocates urge end to bank payday lending as well

By Charlene Crowell, NNPA Columnist –

(NNPA) When the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau visited New York City on February 22, a roundtable discussion with bankers and consumer advocates began a day of focused discussion of bank products that cost customers billions per year in unfair fees. In his opening remarks, CFPB Director Richard Cordray called for a “candid discussion” and noted how less than 10 percent of checking account customers bear the brunt of more than 80 percent of all overdraft fees charged by banks.

Director Cordray announced new a new initiative wherein the agency will examine the practice of reordering customer transactions to boost overdraft fees. CFPB will also look at disclosures and marketing, particularly with an eye toward impact on the low-income and young consumers.

Roundtable participant Rebecca Borne, senior policy counsel with the Center for Responsible Lending, advised that overdraft fees are the number one reason bank customers lose their checking accounts.

“We are so pleased that there is finally a regulator, the CFPB, whose primary responsibility and commitment is to ensuring that reasonable rules of the road are in place to reform harmful and reckless financial practices” said Borne. “Today’s typical bank overdraft practices remain in dire need of that reform.”

Sarah Ludwig, executive director of the New-York based Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, drew a connection between costly overdraft fees and the emergence of bank payday loans. As lenders sat nearby, Ms. Ludwig presented a letter with signatures from more than 250 national, state and local organizations from across the country calling for immediate federal action to stop bank payday loans.

The list of supporters included representatives of religious, civil rights, labor, higher education, fair housing, consumers and community activists. Together, these organizations warned against the looming prospect of overdraft fees worsening consumer financial circumstances once bank payday loans are made. The letter and its full list of signers is available at: http://rspnsb.li/vdfUSO

In part the letter advised, “Ultimately, payday loans erode the assets of bank customers and, rather than promote savings, make checking accounts unsafe for many customers. They lead to uncollected debt, bank account closures, and greater numbers of unbanked Americans. All of these outcomes are inconsistent with consumer protection and harm the safety and soundness of financial institutions.”

The letter was also mailed to three other federal regulators: Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Currently, Wells Fargo Bank, US Bank, Fifth Third Bank and Regions Bank use a system previously developed by storefront payday lenders. As banks market the loan as a short-term cash advance for checking account customers, the predatory product typically leads to a long-term cycle of high-cost debt – just like a storefront payday loan.

Banks offering payday loans repay themselves first. The entire loan and its accompanying fee are taken directly from the account as soon as a customer’s paycheck or benefits check is deposited. Typically, banks charge $10 per hundred borrowed; with an average loan of only 10 days, the annual percentage rate for bank payday loans is 365 percent. According to research the Center for Responsible Lending, bank payday borrowers are in debt an average 175 days of the year. Social Security recipients are especially vulnerable, making up one quarter of bank payday borrowers.

Once bank payday loans are repaid, the likelihood of accounts falling short of funds for regular purchases runs high for customers with little or no cushion in their checking accounts. With an average overdraft fee of $34, multiple fees can be charged to these customers without their knowledge – until after fees are assessed when a bank statement arrives.

The connection between bank payday and overdraft fees is akin to that of the knee bone’s connection to the leg bone – financially they affect the same consumer. No one needs or wants a product that devastates their finances and builds debt instead of wealth. Consumer lending shouldn’t make anyone financially crippled.

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

Minority-Owned Networks Sign with Comcast

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By Ayana Jones, Special to the NNPA from the Philadelphia Tribune –

Comcast Corporation has announced agreements with four new minority-owned independent networks.

After evaluating more than 100 proposals, Comcast selected four networks — two of which are majority African American-owned, and two that are majority Hispanic American-owned and operated and programmed in English. The networks will be distributed on Comcast Cable systems between April 2012 and January 2014.

“We are thrilled to work with such talented individuals to launch these new networks that will bring exciting and fresh content to consumers,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president, Comcast Corporation.

“Comcast is committed to delivering programming that reflects the interests of our customers, and we look forward to integrating these great networks into our rich programming lineup.”

The two networks in the African-American category are Aspire and REVOLT.

Spearheaded by NBA Hall of Famer and entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson in partnership with GMC TV, Aspire will deliver enlightening, entertaining and positive programming to African-American families, including movies, documentaries, short films, music, comedy, visual and performing arts, and faith and inspirational programs. The network will launch by summer 2012.

“Aspire will be a network that encourages and challenges African Americans to reach for their dreams and will appeal to all generations,” said Johnson.

“Aspire will celebrate our heritage, our groundbreaking achievements and the fearless talent that has shaped American culture. I’m most excited about Aspire creating opportunities for the new voices, new visions and the next generation of storytellers.”

Proposed by superstar entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs and MTV veteran Andy Schuon, the REVOLT network is designed to have programming inspired by music and pop culture. The network, which launches in 2013, will include music videos, live performances, and music news and interviews, and will incorporate social media interaction for music artists and fans.

“REVOLT is the first channel created entirely from the ground up in this new era of social media,” said Combs.

“We’re building this platform for artists to reach an extraordinary number of people in a completely different way. REVOLT will be live, like all great moments in television history. REVOLT will also be immediate, like today’s social networks. We know it was a highly competitive process and we want to thank Comcast for this opportunity to truly change television with REVOLT.”

The two networks in the Hispanic category are El Rey and BabyFirst Americas.

Proposed by Hollywood director Robert Rodriguez and FactoryMade Ventures executives John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa, El Ray is designed to be an action-packed, general information network in English for Latino and general audiences that includes a mix of reality, scripted and animated series, movies, documentaries, news, music, comedy and sports programming.

The El Ray network will include programming that features Hispanic producers, celebrities and public figures. The network has entered into an agreement to launch by January 2014.

“This partnership with Comcast signals an important moment for the Latino community in this country — we are passionate about creating a wildly entertaining destination that we can be proud of by appealing to both Latino and mass market audiences,” said the principals of El Rey.

“We are engineering El Rey to address a burgeoning opportunity to deliver unique, high-quality and compelling content to a hard-to-reach demographic, and are excited to bring more opportunities to generations of talent, storytellers and dreamers through this special partnership.”

Proposed by Spanish language television veteran Constantino “Said” Schwarz, this network is designed for infants, very young children and their parents and emphasizes the importance of early development of verbal, math and motor skills. The network will launch by April 2012.

“We are thrilled to partner with Comcast and commend them for recognizing the importance of quality education for young children,” said Schwarz.

“BabyFirst Americas aims to bring the essential academic building blocks for kindergarten readiness into the home, making it accessible for families all across the U.S.

In 2011, Comcast made a series of public interest commitments in connection with the NBCUniversal transaction, one of which is to launch 10 new independently owned and operated networks over the next eight years.

Of the 10 channels, four will be majority African American-owned, two will be majority Hispanic-owned and two will be operated by American Latino programmers. These criteria were established based on several agreements Comcast entered into with leading diversity organizations.

Each of the 10 networks will be added on select Comcast systems as part of the digital tier of service.

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