CPRblog
[ Next ]

Missouri River Floodplain Owners Seeking a “Double-Take” from the Taxpayers

Landowners flooded by the Missouri River in 2011 have sued the Corps of Engineers for a Fifth Amendment “taking” under the U.S. Constitution.  Their attorneys hope to rake in over $250 million in claims for their clients and at least $1 million in expenses and fees for themselves.  They’re likely to be disappointed.

Lawsuits seeking recovery of flood damages from the federal government almost always fail.  First, the United States is immune from suit for negligent construction or handling of flood control structures under the sovereign immunity shield of the 1928 Flood Control Act, as plaintiffs whose lives were destroyed when levees failed during Hurricane Katrina quickly discovered.  My co-author Christine Klein and I have called for a repeal of this provision in our article and book on Unnatural Disasters, but it hasn’t happened.

Full text

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.

Full text

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.

Full text

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.

Full text

Better Late Than Never: OIRA’s Meeting Logs Just Got a Lot More Transparent

This week the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—the obscure White House Office charged with reviewing and approving agencies’ regulations—took an important and much-appreciated step in the direction of greater transparency by updating and improving its electronic database of lobbying meetings records that the agency holds with outside groups concerning the rules undergoing review.  As detailed in a 2011 CPR report, corporate interests have long used OIRA as a court of last resort for seeking relief from regulatory requirements they find inconvenient; these lobbying meetings provide them with a powerful and secretive forum in which to push for substantive changes to critical agency safeguards that would ensure the public continues to bear the cost of their polluting activities.  With the improved database, the public, policymakers, and the media will be better able to track the efforts of corporate interests to exploit the OIRA review process to weaken or block regulatory protections.

Before the upgrade, OIRA docketed all its meetings in a barebones and often careless fashion on a separate section of its website.  As the 2011 CPR report explained, the meetings dockets suffered several serious flaws.  The meetings were not linked to the rule undergoing review that was the subject of the meeting, nor was there any standardized format for documenting what rule was the subject of the meeting.  Often, interested members of the public would have to consult a number of different sources to verify what rule was at issue in a given meeting.  To make matters worse, key meetings log data—including the attendees of the meeting and their affiliations—were often rife with typos and inaccurate or incomplete information.  These log data were also supposed to provide links to all documents presented at the meeting, but in some cases the links do not work.  Even when accurate, the meetings data were of limited utility because they were not presented in a searchable database.  If, for example, a member of the public wanted to see how many meetings took place with regard to a particular rule, he or she would have to assemble these data manually.  CPR sought to overcome this problem by creating its own searchable meeting database, which available here.

Full text

The Hill: Natural Floods, Unnatural Disasters

Yesterday, The Hill published an opinion piece by CPR scholars Christine Klein and Sandra Zellmer.

According to the piece:

President Obama recently signed a controversial bill that will directly affect the safety of millions of Americans. The fine print is so complicated, though, that it’s hard to predict exactly how our safety will be affected.

Some say that the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 brings desperately needed relief to property owners who face ruinous increases in their premiums for federal flood insurance. To supporters like Senator Schumer (D-N.Y.), the law preserves the American dream of homeownership from ill-conceived intervention by “an irrational Washington force.”

Others see the new law as election-year pandering and a cowardly reversal of course. Just two years ago, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 in direct response to catastrophic damage from Superstorm Sandy. The 2012 law prescribed strong medicine to salvage the solvency of the flood insurance program from a shortfall of some $25 billion caused by insurance payouts after Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. Before its rollback on Friday, the 2012 law would have quickly phased out federal subsidies until owners of flood-prone properties paid the true actuarial costs of their insurance.

To read the piece, "Natural Floods, Unnatural Disasters," click here.

Klein and Zellmer are the authors of the recently released, "Misssippi River Tragedies, A Century of Unnatural Disaster."

 
Full text

CPR Analyst Matthew Shudtz to Testify at OSHA Silica Hearing

Today, CPR Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz will be testifying at OSHA’s hearing on the proposed silica rule.

According to Shudtz:

The testimony raises some concerns about how OSHA arrived at its proposal to provide limited medical surveillance for silica-exposed workers.  It also covers issues related to enforcement and small business impacts.  But most importantly, the testimony reiterates the need to get this rule finalized quickly.  As we have noted many times in this space, millions of workers are exposed to silica dust at levels that cause high rates of silicosis, lung cancer, renal disease, COPD, and other health problems.  The faster this rule is put in place and enforced, the faster these workers will be able to breath safer air.

To read the testimony in full click here.

Full text

CPR Member Scholars Send Letter to Senate Criticizing “Attempted Misuse” of the Congressional Review Act

Yesterday, 13 Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) sent a letter to the U.S. Senate expressing their concern about S.J. Res. 30, a Congressional Review Act (CRA) “resolution of disapproval” introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that seeks to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Air Act New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) to limit greenhouse gas emissions from future fossil-fueled power plants.  Drawing on their many years experience in administrative law, the Member Scholars make the case that McConnell’s proposal is at odds with the CRA, because it seeks disapproval not of a final regulation, but of a regulation that has merely been proposed.  “By attempting to subject a proposed rule—as opposed to a final rule—to this process,” they write, “S.J. Res. 30 is contrary to the statutory language and could raise questions as to the legitimacy of any resolution of disapproval.”

Some history is in order.  Senator McConnell introduced S.J. Res. 30 in January, and in a slap in the face to, well, everyone, he fired off a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) raising the very issue that the CPR Member Scholars are now flagging:  He asks them to “review” Congress’s ability to use the CRA to force an up-or-down vote to stop the EPA’s proposed NSPS. As explained below, what McConnell hopes to use the CRA for is to prevent any kind of rule that resembles the proposal to go forward.  The GAO has not yet responded to Senator McConnell’s inquiry, but he seems determined to move ahead with the resolution anyway.  Incidentally, the GAO FAQs page on the CRA seems to suggest that the GAO presumes that the CRA does not apply to proposed rules.  One question asks: “Should agencies submit proposed rules to GAO? [i.e., to initiate the CRA process].”  The answer provided states: “No. Agencies should only submit major, nonmajor, and interim final rules to GAO.

Full text

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.

 

Full text

Greening the Idol Industry in India

I’ve been in Bangalore, India for about two months on a Fulbright fellowship to study Indian environmental law.  While I knew India has major problems with air pollution and sanitation, I didn’t expect that one of the major environmental controversies here would be about greening the idol industry.  Apparently, the gods in India can wreak havoc on the environment.

Each year, Indians sink millions of idols in rivers and lakes to celebrate various festivals.   The biggest festival for idol sinking is Ganesh Chaturthi, held each August or September in honor of the elephant god Ganesh.  Hindus sink Ganesh idols for a variety of reasons, including purifying the home, casting away misfortune, and returning the God to the earth.  

The problem is that most of the idols are made of plaster of Paris and are decorated with brightly colored paints that contain dyes and heavy metals such as mercury and lead.   The plaster of Paris gradually dissolves into the water bodies, making the water cloudy and alkaline and depleting oxygen for aquatic life.   The paints and dyes make the water toxic.

Full text