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New Legislation: How the House of Representatives Would Use Scientific Uncertainty to Stop Environmental Legislation

The House of Representatives has passed legislation (H.R. 1422) that prohibits academic scientists on EPA’s Scientific Advisory committee from participating in “activities that directly or indirectly involve review of evaluation of their own work,” but allows scientists who work for industry to serve on the Board as long as they reveal their respective conflicts of interest. To understand the House’s real motives, it is necessary to appreciate how industry seeks to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse not to act on environmental problems.  Senator Inhofe’s claim that global climate change is a hoax is a well-known example of this tactic.  Less visible is a decades long public relations, litigation, and advocacy campaign by corporate interests to manufacturer doubt about the science that supports environmental regulation.

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Protecting Farmworker Kids

Next week in this space, we’ll ask you to think about the food on your Thanksgiving table and what FDA ought to do to keep it safe. Today, I want to focus on how the food gets there—in particular, the work children contribute to the farms where our food and other crops are grown. Many people hold on to the image of children gathering eggs in the yard or dumping a pail of slop in front of an appreciative sow as the true and full extent of child farm labor. But the reality of life on a farm can be much different. In fact, the awful truth is that hundreds of kids who enjoyed Thanksgiving with their families last year won’t be able to this year because they died in an agriculture-related incident in the last twelve months.

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Oral Argument Begins in Farm Lobby’s Misguided Challenge to Bay Pollution Diet

Today, the Third Circuit will hear arguments in a case to determine whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overstepped its authority when it established a pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay. After decades of failed attempts to clean up the Bay, the pollution diet imposes strong, enforceable deadlines for cleanup. Even without distracting and misguided legal challenges from out-of-state lobbying groups, the restoration battle won’t be easy. The plan has been in place since 2010 and still the Bay experienced the eighth largest dead zone in its history this past summer.

The pollution diet, technically known as the “total maximum daily load” (TMDL), places a science-based cap on the total amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that can enter the Bay from the six watershed states and Washington, DC. The TMDL controls “point” sources of pollution—the end of a pipe, for example—as well as “nonpoint” sources, such as most agricultural runoff.

Today, the American Farm Bureau Federation and its supporters will make an argument that flies in the face of settled law. They will argue that by including sector-specific limits on pollution sources, the EPA infringed upon states’ rights to make local land-use decisions. According to the Farm Bureau, the TMDL impermissibly dictates whether:

[P]articular lands can be farmed or developed, and how; the amounts of fertilizer that may be applied to, or sediment that may be washed off from, particular farms, suburbs, land development projects, or city streets; and how to allocate the burdens of achieving water quality goals among municipal sewers, stormwater systems, septic systems, construction and development activities, farming, and other sources.

 
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Obama’s Path to Progress: Protecting Workers from Deadly Silica Dust

In 1997, when OSHA first placed the silica standard on its to-do list, Titanic and Good Will Hunting were hits at the box office and the Hanson Brothers’ “MMMBop” was topping the charts. Pop culture has come a long way since then. OSHA, however, has only made modest progress on the silica rule. It took until 2013—sixteen years—for OSHA to get from saying “we plan to create a new standard” to actually proposing the text. Now the agency is reviewing the mountain of public input submitted during the 11-month open comment period. Two million workers in the U.S. are exposed to the carcinogenic dust and public health experts estimate that every year more than 7,000 workers develop silicosis, and more than 200 die as a result.

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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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Reports of the Death of the Obama Administration Are Greatly Exaggerated: The US-Chinese Climate Agreement

The commentary following last week’s elections has largely been a variation on either of two themes:  (1) how strong Republicans are now that they have secured majorities in both houses of Congress or (2) how correspondingly weak the Obama Administration will be for the remainder of its time in office when it comes to advancing its policy goals.  This commentary may be true insofar as it relates to new legislation.  (Even there, nothing will really change as the prospects for new legislation that the President can sign will be not much worse now than they have been in recent Congresses.)  But when it comes to enforcement of laws that already on the books, President Obama holds the undisputed upper hand, and congressional Republicans remain effectively impotent.

Last night’s agreement between the United States and China to undertake significant cuts in greenhouse gas emission by 2030 illustrates that.  Under the agreement, the United States will cut its emissions between 26 percent and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, while China will reach its peak greenhouse gas emission by 2030 or earlier.  Since the United States and China are far and away the two largest national emitters of greenhouse gases, this agreement marks a huge step in the international effort to avoid the most dangerous impacts of global climate disruption.  It also helps pave the way for the rest of the global community to undertake significant emissions reductions measures of their own as part of future international treaty negotiations.

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Protecting People and the Environment Against Harmful Ozone Pollution

A few months back, President Obama visited several kids receiving treatment for asthma at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC.  Afterwards, he reflected on the critical importance of environmental safeguards, such as those to limit ozone pollution, saying:

[E]very time America has set clear rules and better standards for our air, our water, and our children’s health—the warnings of the cynics have been wrong.  They warned that doing something about the smog choking our cities, and acid rain poisoning our lakes, would kill business.  It didn’t.  Our air got cleaner, acid rain was cut dramatically, and our economy kept growing.

In just a short few weeks, Obama will have his first test of whether he’s prepared to follow through on those words, and frankly, to make good on his legal obligation to do so, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announces whether or not it will establish a more protective national standard to limit ozone air pollution.  The agency is under a judicial order to complete its review of the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone and to propose strengthening it, if necessary, by December 1.  The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set the ozone NAAQS at a level “requisite to protect the public health” with “an adequate margin of safety.” That’s a standard that requires the agency to only consider public health and forbids it from considering polluters’ clean-up costs — not an accident of drafting, by the way, but rather a clear reflection that Congress intended for the EPA to make sure the nation’s air was safe to breathe.

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Reducing Climate Disrupting Emissions from Power Plants

Last week brought a string of bad news as far as global climate disruption goes.  The bummer parade began Sunday with the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Synthesis report, which painted the direst picture yet of the looming global climate disruption threat, finding that “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”  Before it was possible for anyone to catch their breath, the mid-term election results delivered another punch to the environmental gut, as a wave of anti-environmental candidates emerged victorious, securing Republican control of the U.S. Senate and expanding their control of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The cherry on top came when Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a politician best known for writing an entire book in which he dismissed climate disruption as the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—confirmed that he would chair the Senate Committee that will conduct oversight on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Things look grim, but not all hope is lost for making meaningful progress on the issue of climate disruption.  While a comprehensive bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is unlikely to emerge from Congress anytime soon, President Obama already has ample authority to tackle the largest emitters using the existing provisions of the Clean Air Act, as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed.  Fortunately, Obama is already putting that authority to good use with a pair of pending rules that would establish national performance standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from future and existing fossil-fueled power plants.  These rules make up one of the 13 essential regulatory actions highlighted in CPR’s recent Issue Alert on safeguards that the Obama Administration can and should implement before its term in office expires.  By finalizing these regulatory actions, Obama can not only deliver significant benefits to the American public; he can also help secure his legacy on important public health, safety, and environmental issues.

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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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