Rena Steinzor on CPRBlog {Bio}
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The Age of Greed: Toxic Chemical Control Is 'High Priority' Failure for Nation’s Government

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.

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With State of the Union Address, Obama Begins Sketching Out a Positive View of Government

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.

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Corporate Violence as Crime

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.

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Steinzor Reacts to Indictments in West Virginia Chemical Spill Case

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. 

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Will the White House Compel Rich Utilities to Clean Up Giant Coal Ash Pits?

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.  

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EPA's Long-Delayed Ozone Proposal

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. 

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CPR is Hiring a Chesapeake Bay Policy Analyst

CPR is on the hunt for an energetic, organized, and dedicated advocate to join our staff as a Policy Analyst. The focus of this position is restoring the Chesapeake Bay through strong implementation of the Bay TMDL. We are especially interested in candidates who have a background in the legal and policy issues related to both clean water and climate change adaptation. Expertise in GIS and other mapping software is a plus. For a full job description, please see our website.

We are anxious to fill this position quickly, so the deadline for applications is midnight on December 21, 2014. Please submit a cover letter, resume, and brief writing sample to chesbayanalystjob@progressivereform.org.

CPR Policy Analysts work closely with our network of more than 60 Member Scholars to promote strong regulation and progressive policies that will protect public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. This position also presents an exciting opportunity to work with our allies in the Chesapeake Bay who are advocating for improved enforcement of the laws and regulations already on the books.

Please consider applying and share this announcement with colleagues who might be interested

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Why I Wrote This Book: Why Not Jail?

I have spent 38 years in Washington, D.C. as a close observer of the regulatory system, specifically the government’s efforts to protect public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. The system’s a mess. Regulatory failure has become so acute that we truly are frozen in a paradox. On one hand, people expect the government to ensure that air and water are clean, workers don’t die on the job for avoidable reasons, food is safe, and drugs are efficacious. On the other, these expectations are trashed with alarming frequency. I wrote this book because I have lost near-term hope of reviving the agencies assigned these crucial tasks in a globalized economy. Instead, I argue that the most viable way to staunch the bleeding is to mount an aggressive, relentless effort to prosecute corporate managers for preventable accidents that take lives, inflict grave injury, and squander irreplaceable natural resources.

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Blankenship Indictment 'An Example for Every Prosecutor in the Country'

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has set an example for every prosecutor in the country by indicting Don Blankenship, the venal, punitive, flamboyant, and reckless former CEO of Massey Energy. For years, Blankenship demanded updates on coal production every two hours and, the indictment reveals, browbeat senior managers to cut cost and violate crucial safety.  In one handwritten note, he told one such target, “You have a kid to feed.  Do your job.”  When the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, propelling flames at a speed of 1,000 feet/second in all directions from the point of ignition as far as two miles underground, Massey was directly responsible for the root causes of the tragedy.  The families of the 29 men who died can take some solace that this courageous prosecution, by a prosecutor from coal country, takes the strongest possible stand to protect miners from the most reprehensible kind of greed. 

Steinzor is the author of the new book, Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction, published by Cambridge University Press.

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President Obama’s Home Stretch: Saving Lives, Conserving Natural Resources, and Securing His Legacy

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran the best of dozens of stories about how President Obama will behave in the last quarter of his eight years in office. Veteran political reporters Peter Baker and Michael Shear wrote: “As the President’s advisers map out the next two years, they have focused on three broad categories: agenda items he can advance without Congress, legislation that might emerge from a newfound spirit of compromise with Republicans, and issues that Mr. Obama can promote even without hope of passage as a way to frame the party’s core beliefs heading into 2016.” Spinning this message with his usual pungency, long-time adviser David Axelrod declared: “What he can’t do and won’t do is put his feet up on the desk and cross days off the calendar.”

The world is unlikely to leave the President any space for malingering, and his most vehement congressional critics are likely to attack him with such fervor that the faint path toward legislative compromise vanishes. Given these harsh realities, what the President can and should do to build an affirmative legacy is to accomplish well-organized executive actions that would protect public health, ensure the safety of workers and consumers, and preserve the environment.

His harshest congressional critics are only marginally relevant to such an initiative. They’ll keep screeching about the outrage of the Obama Imperial Presidency, and may even get their act together to pass appropriations riders to kill executive actions they intensely dislike. With his veto pen at the ready, though, the President has the power to drive right through such obstacles, earning applause from every quarter except the regulated industries that already treat him with disdain.

Today, CPR is releasing a comprehensive new Issue Alert that sets out an affirmative agenda of the 13 essential regulatory actions the Obama Administration could and should accomplish with the active participation of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, DOL Secretary Thomas Perez, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, and under the leadership of a specially appointed senior White House point person. The Issue Alert, entitled Barack Obama’s Path to Progress in 2015-16: Thirteen Essential Regulatory Actions, explains how President Obama could save tens of thousands of lives lost annually as a result of harmful air pollution, avoid crippling diseases from asthma to severe food poisoning, protect children as young as twelve from tobacco poisoning, clear the lungs of hundreds of thousands of workers who needlessly inhale sharp particles of silica dust, and restore America’s great waters now plagued by ruinous dead zones.

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