Sustained Outrage

Secret meetings, Sept. 23, 2011

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We missed last week, so today we’ll run through any open meetings law violations in the last two issues of the State Register.

In last week’s issue, there were no meetings that violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

Today’s issue contained three violations, with one each by the West Virginia State University Board of Governors, the Bureau of Senior Services, and the Office of Emergency Medical Services.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

The C8 Science Panel must be getting the message … because their latest Status Report — just filed in Wood Circuit Court this afternoon — actually contains some data to back up their conclusions.

This Status Report is an update of the panel’s previous report on pregnancy outcomes, which was released in July. This is a broader look than the previous report, using a linkage between C8 Health Project data and state birth records to, among other things, follow women from one residence to another and estimate their C8 intake from local water supplies.

The Science Panel’s summary says of this new analysis, looking at stillbirths, pregnancy-induced hypertension, preterm birth, and several indicators of the infant’s size, including low birth weight and average birth weight:

Overall, these results provide little or no support for an association between PFOA exposure and any adverse effects on pregnancy.

But it also includes these interesting tidbits:

… But there was some indication that male infants with the highest exposure to PFOA weighed slightly less at birth.

… There was some indication that female infants with the highest exposure to PFOA weighed slightly less at birth.

The panel said of these findings:

These small differences in birth weight with conflicting patterns across the two analyses, one limited to male births and the other [to] female births, are of uncertain significance.

On Monday and Tuesday evenings, the three-person C8 Science Panel will for the first time in its more than five years of activity hold public meetings to talk with the people of the Mid-Ohio Valley about its work.

Meetings are scheduled for Monday at Blennerhassett Middle School Auditorium in Parkersburg and Tuesday night at Meigs Local Middle School Auditorium in Pomeroy, Ohio. Both meetings start at 6 p.m.

We’ve written before here about how the C8 Science Panel’s periodic “Status Reports” are pretty bare bones, and don’t contain any data that would really allow anyone to critique the judgments being made by the panel.

And now, a series of new presentations — delivered by Science Panel members at an International Society for Environmental Epidemiology meeting last week in Barcelona, Spain — provides some interesting examples of how the panel’s Status Reports to the community differ from the data they report to other scientists in journals and at academic conferences. Here’s what I mean:

Back in July, the Science Panel issued a Status report called Serum PFOA and liver function markers in the blood of adults in the Mid-Ohio Valley that found an association between higher C8 levels and higher levels of one liver function marker, ALT. The panel also reported that neither of the other two markers examined, GGT or bilirubin, showed a clear relationship with C8, but provided no data to support that conclusion.

In a later interview with me, Science Panel member Tony Fletcher kind of hedged, though, when pressed about these findings … and now we know why.

As part of a presentation in Barcelona, Dr. Fletcher released some data results from this particular Science Panel study. I’ve posted a copy of this presentation here. This is what the new presentation — for the first time — says:

— There is some suggestion of an association between PFOA and GGT in linear regression models; however, these were not replicated in logistic regressions.

The relationship between PFOA and direct bilirubin is suggestive of an increase in bilirubin [with] increasing PFOA concentations up to 40 ng/ML, followed by a decrease in bilirubin after this peak.

— Negative associations observed in some occupational studies might be due [to] inclusion of subjects in the higher range of exposure missing the first part of the inverse U-shaped curve.

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We broke the story on Tuesday that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board had finalized its report on the three January 2010 incidents — including a fatal phosgene leak — at the DuPont Co. chemical plant in Belle, W.Va.

The board has now released that final report, and issued a press release in which board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

Our final report shows in detail how a series of preventable safety shortcomings — including failure to maintain the mechanical integrity of a critical phosgene hose — led to the accidents. That this happened at a company with DuPont’s reputation for safety should indicate the need for every chemical plant to redouble their efforts to analyze potential hazards and take steps to prevent tragedy.

DuPont has had a stated focus on accident prevention since its early days. Over the years, DuPont management worked to drive the injury rate down to zero through improved safety practices.

DuPont became recognized across industry as a safety innovator and leader. We at the CSB were therefore quite surprised and alarmed to learn that the DuPont Belle plant had not just one but three accidents that occurred over a 33-hour period in January 2010.

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‘Model workplaces’: More deaths at Allegheny

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This week’s death of 63-year-old Ned Johnson at one of the federal government’s “model workplaces” isn’t the first time a worker was killed at a West Virginia facility that was exempted from routine inspections by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Workers previously died while working for contractors at Allegheny Power facilities in 2007 and 2008, according to OSHA records.

The 2008 incident occurred at the company’s Fort Martin Power Station (shown above) near Maidsville in Monongahela County. The contractor, working for a company called Coresco, was run over by a coal-ash truck. Coresco paid a $3,500 fine.

The 2007 incident occurred at Allegheny’s Willow Island Power Plant in Pleasants County (a site infamous for the April 1978 cooling tower construction collapse that killed 51 workers). An employee of contractor Pullman Power fell from a 200-foot-high walkway. No citations or fines were issued.

Interestingly, five years before that death, in October 2002, two workers were killed at the adjacent Pleasants Power Station when a manlift they were using tipped over. No citations  or fines were issued in those deaths, either.

There’s a complete list of the West Virginia worksites that are exempted from inspections under the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program, or VPP, online here. As we’ve mentioned before, the Center for Public Integrity has been raised major questions about this program, reporting among other things:

Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at “model workplaces” OSHA considers the nation’s safest, and which it exempts from some inspections. In 47 of these cases, inspectors found serious safety violations and, sometimes, tragedies that could have been averted.

Will the most recent death get Allegheny (now FirstEnergy) or any of its facilities booted from this OSHA program? I asked agency spokeswoman Leni Uddyback-Fortson that question and this was her answer:

OSHA’s top priority is to conduct a thorough fatality investigation , which we are currently in the process of doing. Once the investigation is concluded, the facility’s VPP status will be re-evaluated. OSHA’s policy with respect to fatalities and willful violations at VPP sites is currently under review.

Did OSHA fail workers at Harrison Power Station?

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In today’s Gazette, we followed up on the death on Sunday of Ned Johnson, a 63-year-old longtime employee of FirstEnergy’s Harrison Power Station near Clarksburg. Specifically, we examined the sad fact that this particular worksite had not been inspected by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in more than a decade:

FirstEnergy’s Harrison Power Station is part of a labor department program meant to allow work sites with good safety records to avoid routine Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections. The program has been criticized by congressional auditors and by workplace safety advocates.

OSHA, though, last inspected Allegheny Energy’s workplaces at the Harrison Power Station in July 2000. Inspectors cited two minor violations, and issued no fines.

Before that, the last inspection of the operation was following the death of a worker in an electrical accident in March 1994, according to OSHA records and Gazette news reports.

Two things are worth thinking about in the wake of this incident.

First, unlike federal mine safety laws, workplace safety laws OSHA operates under do not require periodic inspections of each and every American workplace. In fact, most workplaces in West Virginia and nationwide go for years without ever seeing a federal inspector. As we reported previously:

Business lobbyists like to make out like OSHA is a big, bad agency that shuts them down for all sorts of silly things. The Obama administration and its friends in the labor movement often try to spin it that this administration is doing a great job protecting workers.

But as the AFL-CIO noted in its most recent Death on the Job report, at its current rate, it would take OSHA more than 80 years to inspect every job site in West Virginia.

Remember that OSHA hadn’t inspected the AL Solutions plant in New Cumberland, W.Va., since July 2006 prior to the December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers.  Prior to the January 2010 phosgene leak that killed a worker at DuPont Co.’s Belle, W.Va., plant, OSHA hadn’t inspected that facility for nearly five years.

And second, the reason that OSHA hadn’t visited Willow Island for an inspection for so long is that agency officials put the facility into something called the Voluntary Protection Program, or VPP, which allows companies to avoid regular and programmed inspections if they convince OSHA they are good actors.

Celeste Monforton at The Pump Handle blog has written clearly about the flaws with this OSHA program — how agency officials really have no idea if it works or is a good use of government resources.

And more recently, the fine folks at the Center for Public Integrity have exposed the VPP program, writing of the workplaces OSHA allowed into the program:

Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at these sites, and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 of these cases, records examined by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News show.

Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals.

Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.

C8 Science Panel schedules public meetings

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DuPont Co.’s Washington Works plant near Parkersburg.

For the first time since they announced their initial study plans five years ago, the C8 Science Panel is actually going to meet with and hear from residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley.

The three-member panel just issued this news release, saying:

The C8 Science Panel is organizing two public forums for those interested in hearing more about the status of its work. The public will have a chance to ask the C8 Science Panelists questions, and hear their explanation of the scientific process that goes into making the determination of whether there is a probable link between C8 exposure and human disease.

The C8 Science Panel (Dr. Tony Fletcher, Dr. Kyle Steenland, and Dr. David Savitz) will be present with a complete update on the progress they’ve made so far, and the steps they are taking toward the end result. If you have an interest in the C8 investigation process, we invite you to attend one of these meetings. There are two public meetings each starting at 6pm and planned to last an hour and a half

The meeting schedule:

Monday, September 26, 6pm
Blennerhassett Middle School Auditorium
444 Jewel Road
Parkersburg, WV 26101

Tuesday, September 27, 6 pm
Meigs Local Middle School Auditorium
42353 Charles Chancey Drive
Pomeroy, OH 45769

It’s not clear from the press release how much of the 90-minute meetings the Science Panel plans to take up with their own presentations — and how much time they plan to allow for members of the public to ask questions or make statements. It’s also not clear if the Science Panel is going to make some sort of record — a video recording or a transcript — of the meeting, or create a public archive of any materials provided to them by citizens who appear at the meetings.

A separate statement that was emailed to the media does say:

The format for both meetings will be exactly the same, so interested attendees are asked to choose one meeting most convenient for them in order to maximize participation.

The forums will consist of a short introduction by the Panelists including updates of where the research is now, what they’ve done to get to this point, and when final results can be expected. Questions will then be taken from the public.

That statement also says:

No new results or conclusions will be announced at the meeting. This is rather an opportunity, while the work is still ongoing, for dialogue between the local community and the Science Panel. The Science Panel hopes to have the opportunity to learn more of community concerns and explain more of the process of the science, the results and their careful consideration in this landmark case.

These meetings were scheduled only after Wood Circuit Judge J.D. Beane blasted Science Panel members Tony Fletcher, Kyle Steenland and David Savitz at a court hearing in May for not moving fast enough and not doing enough to update the community on their work.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has identified more weaknesses in EPA’s programs to protect our drinking water, this time concerning pharmaceuticals in water supplies.

In this new report, the GAO explained:

National and regional studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, EPA, and others have detected pharmaceuticals in source water, treated drinking water, and treated wastewater; but the full extent of occurrence is unknown. The concentrations detected for any one pharmaceutical were measured most frequently in parts per trillion. Research has not determined the human health effects of exposure to these concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water. However, federal research has demonstrated the potential impact to human health from exposure to some pharmaceuticals found in drinking water, such as antibiotics and those that interfere with the functioning and development of hormones in humans.

And the GAO found:

EPA faces challenges in obtaining sufficient occurrence and health effects data on pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in drinking water to support analyses and decisions to identify which, if any, pharmaceuticals should be regulated under SDWA. EPA is collaborating with the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Geological Survey on research to help obtain such data but these efforts are largely informal. EPA officials said there is no formal mechanism, such as a long-term strategy or formal agreement, to manage and sustain these collaborative efforts. A recently expired interagency workgroup, which EPA co-chaired, initiated work on a research strategy to identify opportunities that will enhance collaborative federal efforts on pharmaceuticals in the environment, but its draft report did not contain key details about how the agencies will coordinate such collaborative efforts.

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Secret meetings, Sept. 9, 2011

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This week’s edition of The State Register contains one meeting that violates the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

The agency involved is the Public Defender Corp. for the 11th Judicial Circuit.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

We’ve written before about the developing science regarding the potential global warming benefits of a switch from coal to natural gas (see here, here and here).

And now, we have a new paper out in the journal Climate Change Letters that projects a switch to gas won’t have an appreciable impact on global warming, at least not in the next few decades.

Tom Wigley, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, concluded in the paper:

In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades — out to the mid 22nd century for the 10% leakage case.

In a news release, the National Center for Atmospheric Research explained:

The burning of coal releases more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, as well as comparatively high levels of other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particles such as ash. Since natural gas emits lower levels of these pollutants, some energy experts have proposed greater reliance on that fuel source as a way to slow down global warming and reduce the impacts of energy use on the environment.

But the effects of natural gas on climate change have been difficult to calculate. Recent studies have come to conflicting conclusions about whether a shift to natural gas would significantly slow the rate of climate change, in part because of uncertainty about the extent of methane leaks.

Wigley’s new study attempts to take a more comprehensive look at the issue by incorporating the cooling effects of sulfur particles associated with coal burning and by analyzing the complex climatic influences of methane, which affects other atmospheric gases such as ozone and water vapor.

It continues:

By running a series of computer simulations, Wigley found that a 50 percent reduction in coal and a corresponding increase in natural gas use would lead to a slight increase in worldwide warming for the next 40 years of about 0.1 degree Fahrenheit (less than 0.1 degree Celsius). The reliance on natural gas could then gradually reduce the rate of global warming, but temperatures would drop by only a small amount compared to the 5.4 degrees F (3 degrees C) of warming projected by 2100 under current energy trends.

If the rate of methane leaks from natural gas could be held to around 2 percent, for example, the study indicates that warming would be reduced by less than 0.2 degrees F (about 0.1 degree C) by 2100. The reduction in warming would be more pronounced in a hypothetical scenario of zero leaks, which would result in a reduction of warming by 2100 of about 0.2-0.3 degrees F (0.1-0.2 degrees C). But in a high leakage rate scenario of 10 percent, global warming would not be reduced until 2140.

Wigley said:

Whatever the methane leakage rate, you can’t get away from the additional warming that will occur initially because, by not burning coal, you’re not having the cooling effect of sulfates and other particles. This particle effect is a double-edged sword because reducing them is a good thing in terms of lessening air pollution and acid rain. But the paradox is when we clean up these particles, it slows down efforts to reduce global warming.

There’s more coverage of this study from the L.A. Times and the Boulder Daily Camera.