Sustained Outrage

Ignoring science at the Forest Service

When Berry Energy proposed a gas drilling and pipeline project in the Fernow Experimental Forest, U.S. Forest Service scientists reviewed the project and found lots of problems. They worried it would harm endangered bats. They were concerned about toxic runoff and long-term damage to forest ecology.

What happened?

Agency bosses ignored them, allowing a drilling project that ended up causing toxic pollution that killed trees and other vegetation, according to a new report from the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

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Fixing toxic regulations

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We’ve been writing a lot for a few years at the Gazette about C8, the toxic chemical used to make Teflon and lots of other cool nonstick and stain-resistant products. (See here, here and here)

But did you know that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not routinely assess the risks of roughly 80,000 industrial chemicals in use? Or that federal law does not require chemical companies to test the approximately 700 new chemicals introduced into commerce every year?

Well, it’s true, and a new report from the congressional auditors and watchdogs at the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office have some recommendations for fixing this somewhat scary situation. And actually, most of these ideas are not new. GAO made similar suggestions in 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004. Congress has never really listened, so this year, the GAO added reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (known as TSCA) to its list of “High Risk” government programs in urgent need of change. Said the GAO:

EPA does not have sufficient chemical assessment information to determine whether it should establish controls to limit public exposure to many chemicals that may pose substantial health risks. Actions are needed to streamline and increase the transparency of the Integrated Risk Information System and to enhance EPA’s ability under the Toxic Substances Control Act to obtain health and safety information from the chemical industry.

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More evidence against C8

This week, I did a story for the Gazette about a new study that found exposure to the Teflon-production agent C8 could be damaging sperm and reducing sperm counts in humans.

I failed to mention a key thing in that story — that the levels of C8 involved really weren’t that high. The most troublesome part of the study is that sperm seemed to be affected by concentrations of C8 that were about what the general public is already exposed to.

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Don’t call us — not right away, at least

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Statehouse correspondent Phil Kabler reported in today’s Gazette that Gov. Joe Manchin’s bill (SB 279)  to require industrial plants to report significant accidents to authorities within 15 minutes had cleared the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee.

As Phil explained, the committee’s substitute for Manchin’s bill includes language under which failure to report incidents within 15 minutes would carry a fine of “up to $100,000.”

It’s worth noting that this change is a potentially significant weakening from the governor’s proposal. As he did with the original legislation requiring reporting of mining accidents within 15 minutes (following the delayed reporting in both the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire), Manchin mandated a fine of $100,000 for reporting violations. The committee’s version allows fines of less than that amount, at the discretion of the Director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

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Wake up and smell the sewage

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper stepped up the battle to force a merger between the Upper Kanawha Valley Public Service District, town of Pratt and Chelyan Public Service District on Wednesday when he filed complaints with both the state Department of Environmental Protection and Public Service Commission against officials running Pratt’s sewer system.

The system, which treats sewage from Paint Creek in the Upper Kanawha Valley Public Service district, has been plagued by maintenance problems and has repeatedly allowed raw sewage to escape into Paint Creek and the Kanawha River. Pratt is already in violation of a DEP order requiring the town to hire a qualified, fulltime sewer operator and fix the recurring problems.

County officials believe Pratt’s sewer problems are now so great there is no hope the town can fix them alone. The town’s sewer and water systems are on the verge of being placed in receivership.

Carper and other members of the county commission recently brokered a deal to give Pratt an immediate $100,000 loan if they will agree to let qualified staff from Chelyan manage Pratt’s sewer plant.

But despite a new spirit of cooperation between new Pratt Mayor Joe Douglas, other town officials Upper Kanawha Valley management, it doesn’t appear officials in Pratt fully realize the seriousness of their plight.

Despite the urging of Carper and other state and county officials that Pratt must agree to an operation and management agreement (O&M agreement) immediately to fix the town’s sewer problems, Pratt officials are apparently still not ready to come to the negotiating table.

Open letter to the Chemical Safety Board

Maya Nye from People Concerned About MIC passed on this Open Letter to the federal Chemical Safety Board about the board’s decision to cancel a public meeting about the deadly August 2008 explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute. The letter was signed by People Concerned and more than a dozen other citizen groups. Here’s what it says:

March 3, 2009

John Bresland, Chairman/CEO

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

2175 K. Street, NW, Suite 400

Washington, DC 20037-1809

Dear Chairman Bresland:

With the support of numerous international groups, I write to you on behalf of my community and as the spokesperson for People Concerned About M.I.C. to beseech you to hold a timely public hearing regarding the preliminary results of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) investigation into the August 28, 2008 explosion at the Bayer CropScience facility in our community of Institute, West Virginia.

As you are well aware, our community is gravely concerned about the events that occurred that night as well as the lack of corporate accountability to our community that has been consistently displayed with this facility.

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The Associated Press had a story yesterday (also see page 1A of today’s print edition Gazette) about the West Virginia National Guard trying to find some troops who may have been exposed to the toxic chemical hexavalent chromium while they were serving our country in Iraq.

The story noted that a lawsuit had been filed in December by 16 Indiana National Guard soldiers against defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root Inc., alleging the troops.
A lawsuit filed in December by 16 Indiana National Guard soldiers against defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root Inc. claims the troops now have respiratory system tumors associated with exposure at an Iraqi water treatment plant (where apparently the chemical had been used to remove pipe corrosion).

Readers who are interested in more information about this might want to check out (read, listen or watch) this edition of the show Democracy Now! The show covers the issue in much more detail and includes a link to the lawsuit against KBR. Michael Doyle, lead lawyer for the guardsman, explained:

KBR actually very clearly—and we know this from some testimony that KBR managers have already given in a kind of a suit by the civilians, that they absolutely knew that there was sodium dichromate out there at the facility. It’s absolutely also clear that that’s one of the most dangerous carcinogens. This stuff—and folks may have heard about hexavalent chromium in the Erin Brockovich, where they had relatively small amounts, very serious consequences. There were bags of this stuff. And at least some of the testing showed 1.9 percent of the soil was actually sodium dichromate around this site. And despite being paid well to do a site assessment; to do this project; to make sure that the folks out there, the civilians and the soldiers, were protected; they basically just kept ignoring it.

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Chemical safety?

The federal Chemical Safety Board has been in the news for calling off a public meeting under pressure from attorneys for Bayer CropScience. Bayer apparently doesn’t want Kanawha Valley residents to know how close a tank of deadly methyl isocyanate was to the explosion last August at the Institute plant. So far, the board is willing to go along with this secrecy.

But at about the same time that explosion occurred, the Chemical Board was also being criticized, in a report to Congress from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The board is modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, and its job is to investigate the causes of chemical accidents and recommend reforms to make the nation’s chemical industry safer. Unlike EPA or OSHA, the board has no real regulatory authority. It just investigates and makes recommendations.

But the GAO found in an Aug. 22, 2008, report that the board wasn’t doing enough and, in fact, had not implemented reform recommendations made back in 2000:

First, there’s the “investigations gap.” The CSB investigates just a fraction of the incidents that meet its triggering definition. GAO reported that the board doesn’t report to Congress on this gap, and has no plan to eliminate it. Said the GAO:

By not investigating all accidental releases that have a fatality, serious injury, substantial property damage, or the potential for a fatality, serious injury, or substantial property damage, CSB continues to fall short of its statutory mandate.

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The air our kids breathe

lisaonbrown.jpgObama administration EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today announced a new initiative to measure levels of toxic air pollution near many schools around the country.  EPA said federal officials and partners at state agencies  “will prioritize and monitor schools for more extensive air quality analysis looking closely at schools near large industries and in urban areas.”

The EPA announcement comes after a major investigation by USA Today, in which air monitoring “showed pollution at levels that could make people sick or significantly increase their risk of cancer if they were exposed to the chemicals for long periods.”

The newspaper’s investigation found dangerous levels of air pollution at 27 schools in West Virginia, including schools in Huntington, Parkersburg, Vienna, Williamstown, and Follansbee, according to a report by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The USA Today Web site allows readers to search for their local schools and compare air quality there to at other schools around the country.

Jackson said in a statement:

I’m a mother first, and like all parents, I want to be sure my children are breathing healthy air at school. Questions have been raised about air quality around some U.S. schools, and those questions merit investigation. EPA will work quickly to make assessments and take swift action where necessary. Our job is to protect the American public where they live, work and play – and that certainly includes protecting schoolchildren where they learn.

Battling for Bayer?

bayer.jpgBayer CropScience hasn’t said yet if it will challenge $143,000 in fines issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 13 serious and 2 repeat violations related to the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two Institute plant workers.

But a vigorous court fight seems likely, given who Bayer has hired as its lawyer in the matter.

gombar.jpgRobert C. Gombar is well known for his efforts to help companies that butt heads with OSHA over allegations that they weren’t complying with workplace health and safety rules. Gombar is head of the OSHA, MSHA & Catastrophe Response Group at the Washington, D.C., offices of the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery. The firm’s Web site says Gombar has been “primary outside counsel to companies in over 30 industrial disaster situations.”

Gombar is listed on the “revolving door” section of the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets Web site, because he’s been back-an-forth between working for OSHA and representing companies that OSHA inspects.

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