Just days before The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy published her eye-opening story of chemical showers in chicken processing plants and the untimely death of a federal food safety inspector, OSHA announced fines totaling $58,775 in a case involving a worker fatality at another chicken processing plant – this one in Canton, Georgia. According to OSHA's press release, the worker "became caught in an unguarded hopper while attempting to remove a piece of cardboard."
The agency does not typically release the full details of an investigation until it is "closed" by virtue of penalties being paid, a settlement, or a court decision, so we'll only be able to glean the basics of this tragic incident from the public inspection file and press release, for now. But the basics tell a troubling story. OSHA cited Pilgrim's Pride, which boasts billions of dollars in chicken sales annually and employs about 38,000 workers, for violating rules that embody some of the most basic safety principles, like the need to have controls in place to prevent life-threatening machinery from starting up while a worker is servicing it. What's worse, the citation for failing to have procedures in place to control "potentially hazardous energy" has been classified as a "repeat" violation because the plant was cited for similar violations just two years ago.
And yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed to give this plant and others like it significantly more leeway to lower their production costs at the expense of providing safe workplaces. USDA's proposed revisions to poultry slaughter inspections will allow plants to speed up their processing lines in a way that poses serious threats to workers' health and safety. Musculoskeletal problems are already rampant in these factories as a result of repetitive motion and awkward positions. But speeding up the lines, which will decrease processing costs by about three pennies per chicken (a cumulative profit totaling millions of dollars per year), is the incentive that USDA is giving to Pilgrim's Pride and other processors to get them to make the capital investments necessary to adopt a new inspection system. That extra profit will be earned on the backs (and shoulders and wrists) of the workers who will have to cope with dizzying new line speeds.Full text
For more than a year now, food safety and worker safety advocates have been fighting a proposal out of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service that would pull most government inspectors off poultry slaughter lines in favor of potentially un-trained company inspectors, speed up the lines, and allow companies to use additional antimicrobial chemicals to cover up expected increases in contamination. Today, President Obama released a proposed budget that indicates USDA’s proposal will be finalized before the start of FY2014 (see pages 86-87)—a rebuke to advocates who have made a strong case against the USDA proposal.
As we’ve noted before,
The President’s budget suggests that most of these concerns, raised by a broad coalition of the public interest community, have been ignored in a headlong rush to finalize a rule that officials believe will save a few million dollars in USDA’s multi-billion dollar budget (as well as save money for poultry processing companies). Yet, some hope remains that the rule is not written in stone. The President’s proposed FY2013 budget also assumed that the rule would be finalized before USDA’s budget was set. That did not happen, and it shouldn’t this time, either.Full text
This week, GAO provided a helpful, unfortunately annual, reminder that EPA must do more to keep the IRIS program relevant for chemical risk management. For the fifth year running, EPA’s programs for chemical risk management (IRIS among them) have been deemed in need of attention to avoid becoming so ineffective as to be considered a waste of agency resources. GAO notes minimal progress by the IRIS program on completing assessments in the last two fiscal years (4 assessments each year). GAO’s concern about the pace of new assessments echoes the concerns raised by CPR and other public health advocates at a Nov. 2012 stakeholder meeting convened by Dr. Kenneth Olden, the new head of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment.
IRIS program management recently delivered a status update to the National Research Council, explaining additional changes to the IRIS process that are aimed at reducing the time it takes to assess the long-term risks posed by toxic chemicals in our air, water, and soil. Some changes are innovate staffing and management proposals, such as teams of specialists in certain risk assessment issues who will consult with other IRIS staff on particular chemical assessments. I’m especially encouraged by the development of the Comment Tracker Database, which will allow IRIS staff to track common criticisms and respond to them in a consistent manner. The database will also be a good tool for analyzing the utility of the various rounds of stakeholder review that are part of the IRIS process. By my count, it’s now up to six rounds per assessment, since IRIS management have decided to add a public meeting at the literature review stage. As I said at the November stakeholder meeting, based on our own observations of the similarity of issues raised in recursive rounds of stakeholder review, we expect assessments could be completed more quickly if stakeholder review were consolidated into a single comment period that ran concurrent with the expert peer review. Should the database bear that out further, IRIS management ought to feel comfortable culling some of the extraneous review periods.Full text
In January, USDA issued a proposed rule that would allow poultry slaughter facilities to increase the speed of their slaughter and evisceration lines as part of an effort to “modernize” the slaughtering process. Today, I attended a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) and asked for the committee’s help in stopping the rule, given its threats to workers’ health and safety.
The gist of the rule is that it would remove most USDA inspectors from the slaughter lines and shift their inspection responsibilities to company employees. Because these changes would require costly alterations to the lines and potentially increase companies’ food safety liabilities, USDA had to sweeten the pot to entice companies to take advantage of the new system. So, USDA proposed allowing companies to increase line speeds from an already astounding 90 birds per minute to a dizzying 175 birds per minute, which is predicted to deliver companies added profits of a few pennies per bird. Of course, in an industry that processes billions of chickens per year, the pennies really add up.
Others have covered the troubling food safety implications of forcing USDA’s remaining inspectors to “inspect” (if you can call it that) 175 birds per minute.Full text
Last month, EPA published for public comment a draft “framework” for human health risk assessment. It is the culmination of years of work done by EPA staff who are part of the Risk Assessment Forum, a select team of experts from various offices throughout the agency whose efforts were overseen by the Office of the Science Advisor. Billed as a response to the National Research Council’s Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment (a.k.a. the “Silver Book”), the Framework really only addresses one of NRC’s recommendations. And it proposes policy changes that threaten scientific integrity.
The Silver Book’s Chapter 8 looks innocuous at first glance, suggesting that improvements in EPA’s risk assessment process should include reforms that “[make] risk assessments more useful for informing risk-management decisions.” But the simple utilitarian façade masks a proposal that would induce a revolutionary shift in the way EPA risk assessments are conducted. To make risk assessments more useful, NRC proposed a process wherein risk managers (the agency policymakers with the closest ties to political appointees) would sit down with risk assessors (the agency scientists who read the scientific studies and interpret their meaning in terms of potential risks to the public) before the risk assessment begins, with an objective of defining the scope of the risk assessment. The concept of risk assessors and risk managers working together is not unreasonable, but as with any practical effort to put in place a general recommendation, the devil is in the details.
How best to maintain protective distance between risk assessors and risk managers is a controversial subject. Without independence from policymakers and their agendas, risk assessors are extraordinarily vulnerable to manipulation. The high profile case of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Julie MacDonald, a Bush Administration political appointee who tampered with scientific evidence behind endangered species listings shows just how far these problems can go.Full text
Two years ago tomorrow, Saturday, EPA sent a seemingly modest idea over to the White House for a quick review. The agency wanted to establish a simple list of “chemicals of concern.” These weren’t chemicals that were necessarily going to be subject to bans or other restrictions, but they present significant enough hazards and are distributed widely enough in the environment to raise some eyebrows among EPA’s toxics staff. Among the chemicals that were being proposed for inclusion on the list: phthalates, PBDEs, and BPA. The rule wasn’t expected to cost much, but EPA sent it to the White House anyway, probably because this was the first time the agency would use a particular statutory authority Congress first granted in 1972. But two years after EPA sent the proposal to the White House, it is still sitting on a desk somewhere at OIRA, and I think it’s time to say it: OIRA has killed this rule.
It’s troubling that such a small thing as a list of dangerous chemicals could be dashed by the White House. In 2009, GAO added EPA’s toxics program to its list of “high-risk programs warranting attention from Congress and the executive branch.” Surely, this is not the kind of attention GAO had in mind. GAO’s auditors have noted that
EPA has a limited ability to provide the public with information on chemical production and risk because of TSCA's prohibitions on the disclosure of confidential business information. About 95 percent of the notices companies have provided to EPA on new chemicals contain some information claimed as confidential.
Today EPA released the first part of its long-awaited reassessment of the human health risks posed by 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, a chemical considered to be the most toxic of the dioxin compounds and the stuff that made Agent Orange so bad for its victims. It’s bittersweet news: on the one hand, the decades-long stretch between EPA’s first look at dioxin and this document is something we don’t like to see, while on the other, today marks an enormous step forward. The document released today focuses only on non-cancer effects and sets an oral reference dose—the level of exposure below which key health impacts are unlikely to occur. Past EPA assessments looked only at dioxin’s carcinogenic risks, so it is an important development that today’s release looks at the many other adverse health outcomes that might occur, such as “chloracne, developmental and reproductive effects, damage to the immune system, interference with hormones, skin rashes, skin discoloration, excessive body hair, and possibly mild liver damage.”
As Ben Somberg noted here in December, the American Chemistry Council tried to convince EPA that a rider to the FY2012 omnibus spending bill required the agency to pull back the dioxin assessment. CPR President Rena Steinzor and I wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to correct the record on ACC’s false claim. The letter explained how the House had earlier considered a version of the bill that required EPA to rework all draft and final IRIS assessment due out in FY 2012, but ultimately went with a bill that requires revision of only the draft assessments and not the final assessments.
Good for EPA for calling the chemical industry’s bluff!
The most important part of EPA’s dioxin risk assessment is still in the works. The cancer-focused part of the assessment continues to be under review. The National Academy of Sciences undertook a two-year review of EPA’s draft dioxin assessment (both the non-cancer and cancer analyses) in 2004-2006. There’s no question that dioxin is a carcinogen. This protracted fight over the cancer part of the assessment revolves around exactly how dioxin and related compounds cause cancer. It matters because the mode of action determines the shape of the dose-response curve, which will ultimately impact EPA’s best guess as to the “safe” level of dioxin exposure. The lower the level, the more expensive Superfund cleanups become and the more likely it is that guidelines for meat and dairy consumption will have to be rethought. (Dioxin bioaccumulates in fat, resulting in the public’s primary routes of exposure being beef, dairy, and freshwater fish consumption.)Full text
On Monday, GAO released its latest installment in what has become a somewhat regular series of reports on EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program. In 2008, GAO warned that “the IRIS database was at serious risk of becoming obsolete because the agency had not been able to keep its existing assessments current, decrease its ongoing assessments workload to a manageable level, or complete assessments of the most important chemicals of concern.” Although IRIS didn’t get a clean bill of health, this new report highlights some important improvements in the last few years.
To begin, GAO praised EPA for its decision to start publishing comments that other agencies submit during interagency review of draft IRIS documents. The interagency review process was first instituted during the Bush Administration and because it was originally run by OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), often resulted in long delays for draft chemical assessments. One of the biggest problems was that it gave agencies like NASA, DOD, and DOE – whose budgets and operations could be impacted by further regulation of toxic chemicals – a privileged opportunity to shape EPA’s risk assessments. Now that interagency review is run by EPA, which has better policies on transparency than OIRA, we at least get an opportunity to see the other agencies’ comments and judge them on their merits.
Of course, as we’ve said before, the interagency review process ought to be scrapped. The IRIS process needs to be streamlined and the best thing to do would be to combine the recursive review periods into a single comment period for all stakeholders, be they government agencies, chemical manufacturers, or public interest groups. Doing so could help speed up the publication of new assessments.Full text
The environmental community breathed a small sigh of relief last week when congressional negotiators released a spending bill without policy riders that would have prevented EPA from advancing rules on greenhouse gases, endangered species, and coal ash. One rider that was included will slow EPA’s efforts to assess toxic chemicals’ potential health effects under the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) process. Although the rider was substantially revised from a version floated in the House in July, it will still delay important public health protections on arsenic and other toxic chemicals.
Ever since the National Research Council released its review of the IRIS formaldehyde assessment in April, the chemical industry and its GOP allies have been arguing that the IRIS program should be stopped until EPA revamps its process for assessing chemical risks. The NRC committee went beyond its charge of assessing EPA’s draft formaldehyde assessment and included some significant criticisms regarding the form of recent IRIS assessments and EPA’s transparency about its methods for developing assessments. But even though NRC’s complaints were serious, the reviewers were careful to state explicitly that EPA should not delay even the formaldehyde assessment as the agency works toward implementing NRC’s recommendations for improving the IRIS process.
The chemical industry’s congressional backers like to embrace the NRC report, but conveniently omit the part about not stalling current assessments. These industry backers shoehorned some particularly extreme riders into the budget bill debated in the House in July. Among other things, they could have stopped EPA from issuing air toxics regulations or Superfund cleanup decisions based on existing IRIS values, making the current database useless and preventing enforcement of many existing rules.Full text
This week OSHA expanded a two-year-old enforcement program aimed at preventing catastrophic release of highly hazardous chemicals—the type of headline-grabbing event that ruined thousands of lives in Bhopal in 1984 and was narrowly avoided in West Virginia in 2008. Originally targeted at just three regions (and optional for state-plan states in those regions), the National Emphasis Program for PSM Covered Chemical Facilities (aka “Chem NEP”) has now been expanded nationwide and requires all state-plan states to adopt their own version of the program. This is a good step toward addressing a serious problem.
In announcing the expansion of the NEP on Wednesday, OSHA chief David Michaels said that “far too many workers are injured and killed in preventable incidents at chemical facilities around the country,” and that inspections during the pilot period “found many of the same safety-related problems that were uncovered during [OSHA’s] NEP for the refinery industry, which is also covered by the PSM standard.” Those problems were most often issues with equipment and with operating procedures. Those sound like serious concerns, especially if the problems show up at similar incidence rates around the country as they did in the pilot NEP.
Chris Hamby, of the Center for Public Integrity, has pointed out a concern that’s not unique to this NEP, but is worth repeating: any facility that’s a part of the Voluntary Protection Program will get a pass on any programmed inspection that would fall under the NEP. That includes VPP sites where a total of 18 workers have died since 2000—hardly the “model workplaces” that ought to get such special treatment.Full text