Rena Steinzor on CPRBlog {Bio}
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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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The age of greed: Mitch McConnell goes to bat for Big Coal after West Virginia catastrophe

For the past week, 300,000 people in and around Charleston, West Virginia, have been unable to drink the water that came from their taps, because of the toxic byproduct of feeble regulation and non-existent enforcement. Thousands of gallons of a coal-cleaning agent seeped into the local water supply after it oozed out of an antiquated storage tank and then overflowed a surrounding containment area just a mile upriver from the local water plant. Significantly, inspectors had not visited the facility in more than a decade, except by a smattering of state officials focused on air pollution, who walked on by the corroded tank and the bird's eye view of the river.

Disturbingly, we know very little about the effects of the chemical on humans. The weak federal Toxic Substance Control Act and the diminished enforcement power of the EPA and state officials in West Virginia have left local residents and citizens across the country wondering how their government came to be so powerless to stop this obvious hazard, made worse by the keystone-cop ineptitude of West Virginia’s Governor Tomblin in the days after the spill.

The search for an answer to that question leads right to the doorstep of anti-regulation politicians like Sen. Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. Decades of coal mining in the region have taken a profound toll on mountains, valleys, streams, and rivers, throughout Appalachia. And as Charleston takes its place in the history of regulatory disasters alongside the West Texas chemical plant disaster and the BP spill in the Gulf, what is the Senate Minority Leader's priority this week? Not examining how to repair the shredded regulatory infrastructure that left West Virginians without clean water. To the contrary, he's focused on cutting back further on attempts to rein in the pollution caused by coal production. 

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ACUS’s final statement on OIRA Is weak tea and wide of the mark

Recently, the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) adopted a statement on how to improve the “timeliness” of rule reviews by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). As regular readers know, OIRA has time and again delayed the release of crucial health, safety, and environmental regulations, leaving the public exposed to unnecessary dangers while these rules gather dust on OIRA’s desk—like the proposed rule on silica exposure that was delayed for over two and a half years.

Before discussing how ACUS addressed this issue, it’s worth considering what ACUS didn’t address. The project’s original title probably set expectations too high: “Improving the Timeliness, Transparency, and Effectiveness of OIRA Regulatory Review.” The stage appeared to be set for a broad examination of OIRA’s role, including its failure to meet the deadlines and disclosure requirements set forth in the document that gives it authority to conduct regulatory review: Executive Order 12,866. However, it soon became clear that only one of those three factors (timeliness) would be on the table for discussion, and the other two concepts were dropped from the project’s title.

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