In a letter today, CPR President Rena Steinzor and board member Sidney Shapiro recommend to Congress questions it should investigate to get to the bottom of the Toyota accelerator/recall matter that's all over the news. The letter focuses in particular on the role of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and examines the agency's shortcomings in achieving its mission to protect public safety.
To be clear, the Toyota case is about much more than engineering failure. It is a massive regulatory failure. One challenge confronting Congress is to determine how and why NHTSA failed to contain this problem after reports of safety failures began to surface several years ago. Did NHTSA lack sufficient statutory authority? Are its procedures too cumbersome to allow it to protect consumers in such instances?
The letter was sent to Rep. Edolphus Towns, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Darrell Issa, the committee's ranking member. The committee will be holding a hearing on Toyota and NHTSA (originally scheduled for Wednesday; now postponed due to weather).
Toyota is on the media offensive this morning, announcing that it has found the problem (sticking pedals, it says) and is fixing it. Some articles indicated NHTSA has signed off or given "clearance" for the plan, but Toyota specifically noted that while NHTSA had reviewed its plan, it has not "signed off" on it, as it doesn't have the power to do so.
Two articles in particular have raised further questions.
The LATimes published its investigation over the weekend, questioning whether sticky gas pedals are the whole problem:
Federal vehicle safety records reviewed by The Times also cast doubt on Toyota's claims that sticky gas pedals were a significant factor in the growing reports of runaway vehicles. Of more than 2,000 motorist complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles over the last decade, just 5% blamed a sticking gas pedal, the analysis …
Sue Sturgis has a nifty post at Facing South checking in on the doings of members of congress who represent states or districts that have cases of groundwater pollution from coal ash sites. Writes Sturgis:
On July 9, 2007, EPA's Office of Solid Waste published a report titled "Coal Combustion Damage Case Assessments" pdf documenting 24 cases of proven environmental damage and 43 cases of potential damage caused by current coal ash disposal practices nationwide. As it turns out, many of those damage cases are in the home states of Congress members opposing strict coal ash regulations.
Dozens of members representing areas affected by coal ash pollution have signed letters to the administration opposing strong regulation (one of the letters was sent just last month). Check out the post for the full rundown.
The EPA announced yesterday that they’re changing the way they treat manufacturers’ claims that certain information about toxic chemicals should be kept secret.
Richard Denison of EDF has a useful explanation and analysis of this good news.
Rena Steinzor and Matt Shudtz explored the dangers of secrecy in chemical science in a 2007 CPR white paper, Sequestered Science: Secrets Threatening Public Health.
The New York Times editorial page weighed in on coal ash today, saying:
The EPA’s recommendations, which have not been made public, are now the focus of a huge dispute inside the Obama administration, with industry lobbying hard for changes that would essentially preserve the status quo. The dispute should be resolved in favor of the environment and public safety.
This debate is being conducted behind closed doors, mainly at the Office of Management and Budget, where industry usually takes its complaints and horror stories. A better course would be to let the E.P.A. draft a proposal, get it out in the open and offer it for comment from all sides. The Obama administration promised that transparency and good science would govern decisions like these.
Two developments to note on coal ash from recent days:
A few months ago Rena Steinzor wrote skeptically here about state (as opposed to federal) regulation of hydraulic fracturing:
... the idea that after doing all this research, EPA should stand back and let the gas-producing states take the lead, stepping in only after much more delay, would amount to a rollback of environmental protection to the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s, before modern environmentalism and federal regulation began.
Last week ProPublica had a useful article on a key aspect of this ("State Oil and Gas Regulators Are Spread Too Thin to Do Their Jobs"). Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten put together the numbers and found:
While the number of new oil and gas wells being drilled in the 22 states each year has jumped 45 percent since 2004, most of the states have added only a few regulators.
It's a troubling read.
A group of organizations who work to eliminate health hazards in housing have sent a letter to OMB chief Peter Orszag expressing concern over the "detailing" of Randall Lutter to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The letter focuses on Lutter's writings on the economics of lead poisoning:
Mr. Lutter's statement, "...the children who would benefit from reduced lead hazards are living in the care of their parents, and their parents have control of such hazards" profoundly ignores the realities of the housing market and the extent to which families are able to identify and select housing that is free from hazards.
Although Mr. Lutter's contributions to the literature appropriately belong in an academic discussion of cost-benefit and regulatory analysis, we cannot understand why the Administration, given its public commitment to pursuing many of the very goals and policies viewed as ill-advised …
One year ago today, about 1 billion gallons of coal ash were spilled when a dyke collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's fossil plant in Kingston, Tennessee.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel has the moment-by-moment account of what happened that night. They report that Roane County real estate and tourism have suffered, and that there are 14 lawsuits pending against TVA in relation to the disaster, which will likely take years to resolve. And they editorialize:
TVA and the EPA have vowed that they will do everything in their power to prevent anything of this kind and this magnitude from ever happening again. We believe they will try — and public oversight and accountability will be the best tools to hold them to their promise.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports a group of local residents speaking up against TVA and state and county authorities.
The Washington Post and …
In his speech in Copenhagen Tuesday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger applauded international leadership on climate change, but said that national or international agreements alone will not address the issue. He said that the "scientists, the capitalists and the activists" across the world have and will play an important role. And he talked about the job for subnational governments, like his own:
While national governments have been fighting over emission targets, subnational governments have been adopting their own targets and laws and policies.
In California, we are proceeding on renewable energy requirements and a cap and trade system for greenhouse gases. We are moving forward. As a matter of fact, we are making great progress. If hydro is included, we will get 45 percent of our energy from renewables in ten years from now and we are already at 27 percent.
We are proceeding on the world's …