President Obama’s approval rating is up to 50 percent for the first time in two years after a stellar period of national reconciliation and the safeguarding of Obamacare, his signature, and truly momentous, achievement. The president, in fulfillment of his noble promises to help the middle class, is about to put his weight behind a Labor Department rule that would hike minimum earnings needed to earn overtime pay, a proposal that would affected 5 million Americans. These accomplishments remind people why they voted for him in the first instance and returned him to office by a very comfortable margin.
But for those of us who believe that people should be able to go to work without getting sick or dying, a remarkable series of stories by the Center for Public Integrity can only strengthen the despair that has been building slowly since the president took office. The series describes an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) so impotent with respect to pervasive workplace hazards that it is fair to ask whether this 45-year old institution is fundamentally irrelevant to most American workers.Full text
Anyone who cares about the development of sound public policy has grown distraught over congressional gridlock. The House and Senate are dysfunctional to an extent not seen in modern times. Neither is able to develop bipartisan legislation to deal with a slew of urgent social problems, from immigration and the minimum wage to the strengthening of outdated health and safety laws. But the kneejerk glee that accompanies any bipartisan action regardless of content is just as dangerous. Take, for example, the bill to “reinvigorate” the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that just passed the House by a vote of 398 to 1.
The sad truth is that we don’t require enough testing on toxic chemicals before chemical manufacturers market them in this country, and public health has paid a heavy price for this omission. It’s difficult to think of more than a very small handful of industrial chemicals that have proved less toxic than we originally thought; instead, the more we learn, the more dangerous the vast majority of toxic chemical mixtures prove to be. TSCA (pronounced like the opera Tosca) was written in 1976 and is overdue for an overhaul. But the House bill will not solve the acute problems caused by toxic chemicals in the environment, and could even make matters much worse. This flawed product will meet a Senate bill that is also quite weak, setting up the potential for a “race to the bottom” in conference. Industry advocates are clearly counting on this dynamic when conferees meet. And rumor has it that the White House has signaled presidential eagerness to sign a bill, eliminating that critical counterweight to a bipartisan sell-out.Full text
In her first major criminal settlement since becoming Attorney General, Loretta Lynch has delivered, trussed and on a platter, five of the world’s biggest banks—Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, and UBS. The five will actually plead guilty to specific crimes involving manipulation of foreign currency markets and will pay close to $6 billion in penalties for illegally collaborating to drive trading prices up and down. As one not-so-bright bank executive pronounced slyly in an online chat room that the self-named “cartel” used to communicate, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”Full text
With the announcement that GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra received the outsized compensation of $16.2 million in 2014, what should have been a year of humiliation and soul-searching for that feckless automaker instead ended on a disturbingly self-satisfied note. Purely from a public relations perspective, Barra worked hard for her money. Appearing repentant, sincere, and downcast, she persuaded star-struck members of Congress that the company was committed to overhauling a culture characterized by what she called the “GM shrug,” loosely translated as avoiding individual accountability at all costs. Even as she blinked in the television lights, GM fought bitter battles behind the scenes to block consumer damage cases and exploit corporate tax loopholes.
Largely on the basis of her political adeptness, Barra has been taking victory laps in the business press, hailed as the rare (female) CEO who has led her corporation out of a morass that could happen to anyone. This performance and the accolades it inspired provide a troubling coda to what was a destructive year for American drivers. Dubbed “the year of the recall,” automakers recalled an unprecedented 64 million vehicles ? about one in five cars on the road; GM led with 26 million of this total.Full text
Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reiterated its conclusion that EPA’s regulation of toxic chemicals is in crisis, unable to deliver badly needed protection to the American people. These benighted programs are among a couple of dozen of “high priority” failures that cause serious harm to public health, waste resources, or endanger national security, and Congress is giving the report red carpet treatment, with House and Senate hearings on the report scheduled the very day it was released.
In auditor speak, GAO says that “[b]ecause EPA had not developed sufficient chemical assessment information under these programs to limit exposure to many chemicals that may pose substantial health risks, we added this issue to the High Risk List in 2009.” At the time, then-Administrator Lisa Jackson took clear steps to rescue the program. Since then, very little progress has been made, largely because the Obama Administration has narrowed its focus to climate change, and a major overhaul of initiatives swamped by chemical industry nitpicking does not seem to be in the cards until at least 2017.Full text
There were many highlights in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, but one passage in particular stuck out for us. In this passage, Obama laid out his clear vision of the positive role that government can and must play in our society—and sharing this vision with the American public will be essential for successfully repelling the oncoming Republican onslaught against regulatory safeguards. He cast his positive vision of government in the following terms:
But here’s the thing—those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm. Tonight, together, let’s do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.
In other words, we as a society benefit when everyone has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential. The government is uniquely positioned to ensure that everyone is afforded opportunity; and, when the government is permitted to function effectively, it can and will fulfill this task successfully. Individuals win. Society wins. And the government has a critical role to play in achieving these results.Full text
A year ago, about 300,000 people in and around Charleston, West Virginia, lost their drinking water source when thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical known as MCHM (4-methylcyclohexanemethanol) leaked into the nearby Elk River through a hole in a rusted-out storage tank. Last month, the wheels of justice began to catch up with the owners of the responsible company when they were indicted by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. Coincidentally, the West Virginia indictments came down on the same day that the Justice Department charged 14 people in Massachusetts for their role in producing and distributing meningitis-tainted steroid injections that killed 64 people.
The same-day indictments framed a question business leaders would do well to contemplate: When do corporations and their executives cross the line between unavoidable human error and preventable criminal misconduct? Prosecutors seem increasingly ready to push reckless management to the criminal side of the line as one corporate fiasco after another claims lives and causes hugely expensive damage to communities and local economies.Full text
CPR President Rena Steinzor issued the following statement in response to today's announcement that a grand jury had indicted owners and managers of Freedom Industries in connection with the massive leak of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MHCM) that fouled the Elk River and triggered a drinking water ban for 300,000 residents earlier this year:
Booth Goodwin continues to distinguish himself as a tough prosecutor who is willing to use the law to punish and deter those who threaten public health. Because this harsh chemical was never tested, we know that public health was damaged but not exactly how people were harmed or, for that matter, how much harm was done. The spill destroyed the peace of mind of tens of thousands of people and put everyone on bottled water for weeks. For that, the defendants should pay, with jail time and fines.
Steinzor is a professor of law at the University of Maryland and the author of the recent book, Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.Full text
We’ll soon learn the results of White House deliberations over EPA’s long-delayed coal ash rule, one of the Essential 13 regulatory initiatives we’ve called upon President Barack Obama to complete before he leaves office. Under the terms of a consent decree, EPA is required to issue its new rule by Friday, December 19. As glad as we are to see this phase of the rule’s tortuous odyssey come to a close, we suspect that court, not a victory party, will be the public interest community’s next stop, despite a late-entry exposé aired by 60 Minutes last week.
In the universe of self-inflicted environmental wounds over the last two decades, any “10 best” list must include the brilliant decision to make operators of coal-fired power plants scrub smokestacks to keep mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead particles out of the air but neglecting to prevent them from picking the bad stuff up off the grate, carting it a short distance, and dumping it into giant pits in the ground. Utilities generate an astounding 100 million tons of such inky sludge annually. But because the federal government has never issued minimum requirements for such dumps, and state laws are rarely adequate, these pits have been left to grow wider, deeper, and taller, contaminating drinking water and threatening catastrophic spills.Full text
How much is it worth to save the life of a grandfather with lung disease or to keep an asthmatic child out of the hospital? The ozone rule, which EPA proposes today after years of politically motivated delay and while staring down the barrel of a court order, responds to the urgent calls of a gold-standard panel of scientists, who have been pleading with the agency to lower the existing standard of 75 parts per billion to the lower end of a range between 60-70 ppb. The Obama Administration did not quite do that, instead suggesting a range of 65-70 ppb, disappointing public health experts, and leaving thousands of lives in danger. But at least it got off the dime regarding one of the most important public health problems caused by air pollution. Hopefully, it will push the numbers down after the comment period.
Because China has ignored this very problem, citizens in that country’s big cities wear face masks every day. That’s why this rule is so important.
It’s not surprising that polluting industries are responding with hysteria, ignoring the public health benefits in favor of their bottom line. It’s way past time for this chorus of polluting profiteers and their allies in Congress to stop acting like money spent to clean the air is money wasted. Just ask families of people who struggle to breathe freely.Full text