Rena Steinzor on CPRBlog {Bio}
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Department of Agriculture Sends Misguided Fiasco of a Poultry Processing Rule to the White House

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent its benighted poultry processing rule to the White House for final review.  The millions of consumers who eat undercooked chicken at their peril and the beleaguered workers in these dank, overcrowded, and dangerous plants can only hope the President’s people come to their senses over there and kill this misguided fiasco. 

Ordinarily, we would have hoped that Department of Labor secretary Tom Perez would have put his foot down before USDA proceeded with the final rule, but after months of pleas from the National Council of La Raza, African American labor advocates, trade unions, and consumer groups across the spectrum, he has remained aloof.  Apparently, the economic needs of multi-billion dollar poultry processing companies that have brought us salmonella outbreak after salmonella outbreak will once again trump the needs of the consumers and workers, especially Hispanic and African American workers who, if they are lucky, manage to avoid cutting themselves too often on crowded assembly lines only to succumb to crippling ergonomic injuries a few years down the road.

USDA claims that the rule will “modernize” the food safety system with respect to poultry grown and slaughtered in the U.S.  This claim has got to be one of the greatest misrepresentations launched by the government so far this year.  Instead, the rule makes a pair of very bad changes that benefit an industry undeserving of the public’s trust:  (1) it pulls hundreds of federal inspectors off the line at poultry plants so they won’t be able to check birds for feces, blood, and feathers and (2) it allows chicken producers like Foster Farms, Perdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride to speed the line up from 50-70 birds/minute to 175—or close to three birds every second.

In place, the rule imposes two laughable substitutes.  The first is self-regulation by the chicken companies.  USDA doesn’t tell the companies what to test, how often to test, or what to do with test results, but rather leaves it up to each plant’s managers to decide whether consumers and workers will be at too much “risk.”  Second, workers paid subsistence wages would assume the inspector’s responsibilities, but the rule doesn’t require any training on how they might approach that critical job. At three birds a second, and with the added job of hanging and processing the carcasses as they whip by, the idea that workers can do anything other than get hurt worse is quite remarkable.

 

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The Real "Tsunami" in Federal Regulatory Policy

The federal regulatory system is in crisis. For the past several decades, a damaging set of mandates has continued to pile up on the books—mandates that threaten to stifle critical progress and undermine the nation’s ability to compete in the world economy. Even today, out-of-touch policymakers are attempting to add still more of these mandates, without regard to their direct, indirect, and cumulative costs to society. One might say that we are facing a tsunami, a flood, or even an avalanche of these mandates.

You’ve heard that sort of rhetoric before, I’m certain, deployed by opponents of various safeguards protecting consumers, workers, the environment, and more. But my diagnosis of the problem refers not to regulatory safeguards that agencies are, after all, obligated to issue as part of their statutory missions, but to the growing number of duplicative and utterly wasteful “lookback” or “retrospective review” requirements that opponents of regulation have sought to erect in their ceaseless bid to block effective implementation and enforcement of landmark protective statutes.

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The Age of Greed: Keeping the Public in the Dark About Dangerous Products

It’s basic common decency:  If you know people are about to stumble into a dangerous situation without realizing the risk, you should try to warn them before harm occurs.  For example, you might warn someone that a frying pan is hot before they pick it up or that a handrail is broken before they try to descend a staircase.

For too many companies, though, concerns about profit margins and quarterly earnings reports leave little room for common decency.  These days, when a company becomes aware that the activities it undertakes or the products or services it offers put its workers or consumers in harm’s away, it often decides that its economic best interests are best served by keeping the public in the dark.  By turning a blind eye, companies hope to avoid footing the costs necessary for eliminating the harms they are creating.  This strategy also aims to limit their exposure to civil and even criminal liability, administrative fines, and other penalties.

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What’s Good Enough for General Motors…

It’s hard to find someone who is not appalled at the news that General Motors knew the ignition switches on some 2.6 million of its automobiles were defective and yet did nothing to fix the problem, instead recommending that its customers stop using keychains.  It also lied repeatedly to its regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the media, and its customers. The company’s deliberate lies saved about 90 cents per car, but the defect, apparent for many years, cost lives. So far, GM admits to 13 deaths caused by the sudden failure of the ignition switches, shutting down the cars’ electrical systems, and with it, power brakes, power steering, and airbags.  But judging from the number of people who have filed lawsuits, the death toll could climb much higher, not to mention the non-fatal accidents caused by the problem, conveniently ignored by GM.

The outrage here is quite appropriate. After all, in order to save a little more than $2.3 million (90 cents times 2.6 million cars, that is), a company that reported a profit of $3.8 billion last year risked the lives of millions of customers — and then lost its stingy bet.

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The Victims of EPA’s Retreat from Enforcement

Since the year began, the Environmental Protection Agency has resolved enforcement actions against 12 different companies in the Chesapeake region for failure to comply with environmental laws.  In one case, EPA found that the U.S. Army had failed to inspect more than a dozen underground tanks at one of its Virginia military bases containing hundreds of thousands of gallons of jet fuel, diesel fuel, and gasoline.  A D.C. hospital was not properly checking for carbon monoxide leaks.  A solvent processing facility in Cockeysville, Maryland, was storing industrial waste in a room with a leaky floor.

The Army paid $41,000; the hospital forked over $15,000; the solvent processing facility was out $80,650.  Collectively, the 12 settlements amounted to nearly $325,000 in penalties.  Compared with the $5.15 billion the Texas oil company Anadarko Petroleum Corp. agreed to pay this month for a massive cleanup involving nuclear fuel, rocket fuel waste and other toxins, these penalties look like mere peanuts.  Yet to the neighbors of the Army base who count on clean groundwater, the patients who went to the D.C. hospital to get better, not poisoned, and the Cockeysville residents who live near the industrial plant, these violations could have serious, even fatal, consequences if left unchecked.

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Timid Bay Agreement Falls Short

Maryland faces an important deadline in its long-running effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. By 2017, the state is required to implement specific measures to reduce the massive quantities of nutrient pollution that now flow into the Bay from agriculture, sewage treatment plants, power plants, factories, golf courses, and lawns. Gov. Martin O’Malley and the other Bay State governors know we’re going to have to make some demands on polluters to get the job done. But if the new Bay Watershed Agreement is any indication, the politicians lack the stomach for it.

For years, the Bay states have collaborated their way to nowhere, inking joint agreements that resulted in very little actual progress. Then the Obama EPA stepped up to the plate, issuing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or pollution diet for the Bay. Under its terms, by 2017, the six Bay states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York) and the District of Columbia must have in place 60 percent of all the measures needed to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment deposition in the Bay and its tidal rivers. By 2025, 100 percent of those measures are due.

 

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EPA Declares BP a 'Responsible Contractor' Makes It Eligible Again for Federal Contracts in the Gulf

A scant five days before the Department of Interior opens a new round of bids for oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, the EPA has blinked, pronouncing BP, the incorrigible corporate scofflaw of the new millennium, once again fit to do business with the government.

To get right to the point, the federal government’s decision that BP has somehow paid its debt and should once again be eligible for federal contracts is a disgrace. Not only does it let BP off the hook, it sends an unmistakable signal to the rest of the energy industry: That no matter how much harm you do, no matter how horrid your safety record, the feds will cut you some slack.

Back in 2012, the agency’s intrepid staff had finally gotten permission to pull the trigger on the company, de-barring it from holding any new U.S. contracts on the grounds that it was not running its business in a “responsible” way. Undoubtedly under pressure by the Cameron government and the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, BP’s most loyal customer, the EPA settled its debarment suit for a sweet little consent decree that will try to improve the company’s sense of ethics by having “independent” auditors come visit once a year. 

To review the grim record: BP, now the third-largest energy company in the world, is the first among the roster of companies that have caused the most memorable industrial fiascos in the post-modern age. 

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North Carolina’s Coal Ash Spills: A Glimpse of the Future under OIRA’s Weak Option

Yesterday, we wrote about OIRA’s role in delaying and diluting the EPA’s long-awaited coal ash rule, in part by introducing and promoting a weak option that would rely on voluntary state implementation and citizen suits, instead of nationwide requirements and federal oversight, to protect the public from dangerous leaks and spills.

Anyone who thinks the states can be entrusted with regulating toxic coal ash need only take a passing glance at North Carolina’s track record—a virtual “how to” guide for regulatory dysfunction. Governor Pat McCrory himself worked at Duke Energy for 28 years, and Duke-connected sources donated over a million dollars to get him elected in 2012. Once in office, he appointed several former Duke employees to high-level posts, and the newly appointed head of the state’s environmental department saw himself as a “partner” to regulated industries rather than a cop on the beat. The department took no action even after Duke’s own test results showed that the ponds were polluting nearby groundwater.

Citizen suits fared no better. Even in the best circumstances, these lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming for organizations to bring, and unlike comprehensive regulations, they are sporadic in their coverage. But the situation in North Carolina was even worse: environmentalists filed three separate notices of intent to sue Duke in federal court over groundwater pollution, and each time the lawsuits were stymied by the state’s environmental department.

Federal law gives state regulators 60 days after such notices are filed to assert their own jurisdiction over the issue by bringing an enforcement action, which prevents the citizen suits from proceeding. North Carolina’s environmental department brought actions against all of Duke’s remaining waste sites, effectively blocking any additional coal ash suits against the company. The state negotiated a settlement with respect to two sites, under which Duke would pay just $99,111 (the company is worth $50 billion) and wouldn’t even be required to move or close the dumps.

The state has recently backed away from the embarrassing settlement in light of Duke’s high-profile spill. But with all this attention now focused on their improper relationship, both Duke and the North Carolina government have become the subjects of a federal criminal investigation that will examine years’ worth of their emails and memos.

This is the kind of regulatory protection we can expect to see more of if the EPA decides to issue a weak rule under Subtitle D.

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Mounting Coal Ash Spills Will Be OIRA’s Legacy

Two and a half weeks ago, a Duke Energy ash pond in North Carolina spilled up to 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water after a stormwater pipe underneath the pond broke. The spill coated the bottom of the Dan River for 70 miles with gray sludge—five feet thick in some places. Now, investigators have discovered a second pipe underneath the pond that appears to have been leaking contaminated water into the river for a long time, with levels of arsenic 14 times higher than what would be considered safe for humans.

These spills were accidents waiting to happen. The dangers of toxic coal ash have been flashing loudly on the nation’s radar screen ever since 1.1 billion gallons of wet ash spilled from a ruptured dam in Kingston, Tennessee at the end of 2008. At the time, the EPA promised to quickly adopt new regulations that would protect the public against catastrophic spills from unstable ash ponds, groundwater contamination from unlined waste sites, and the spewing of dry ash into the air.

Fast forward five years: the spills continue (this is the third-largest coal ash spill in the nation’s history), and the regulations have yet to be finalized. There are plenty of villains in this case, from Duke Energy, which has refused to close its poorly maintained and leaking ash ponds, to North Carolina’s environmental department, which turned a blind eye to the warning signs.

But there’s another player with ash on its hands: the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Not only has OIRA been a major participant in the stalling of federal coal ash regulations that may have prevented this spill had they been in place already, but OIRA has also made it much more likely that the final rule, when it comes out, will be too weak to prevent disasters like this from happening on a regular basis.

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The Obama legacy: will West Virginia toxic spill join the queue of episodes showing that “government”—and whatever it means to the President—broke on his watch?

As people across the country and around the world watched the tableau of 300,000 West Virginians give up their drinking, cooking and bath water for days on end because an untested toxic chemical was spilled by a company that was co-founded by a twice-convicted felon, the ever-present John Boehner (R-Ohio) had pungent advice for President Barack Obama.  “We have enough regulations on the books.  And what the administration ought to be doing is actually doing their jobs.  Why wasn't this plant inspected since 1991?” he declared.   “I am entirely confident that there are ample regulations already on the books to protect the health and safety of the American people.  Someone ought to be held accountable here.”

Consistency, of course, is the hobgoblin of small minds and, unfortunately, no member of the media thought to ask Speaker Boehner whether sequestration and other merciless budget cuts might have something to do with the lack of inspections.  Or, to put the issue more bluntly: Why won’t anyone in the press ask the Speaker and his ilk whether we get the government we pay for and whether, these days, we aren’t paying—or getting—enough?  But fair is fair: John Boehner isn’t the president, and this latest catastrophe happened on President Obama’s watch, along with a string of other, disturbingly similar episodes. 

 
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