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- 03/27/14--12:04: _T-Mobile, Sprint sc...
- 03/28/14--07:20: _Name calling won't ...
- 03/28/14--09:12: _Treasury to Comeric...
- 03/31/14--08:56: _GOP opposition to O...
- 04/01/14--13:51: _New report ranks be...
- 04/02/14--03:26: _States target toxic...
- 04/02/14--12:44: _Supreme Court opens...
- 04/03/14--08:02: _Air monitoring in f...
- 04/03/14--10:19: _ICIJ offshore proje...
- 04/03/14--12:58: _McCutcheon ruling l...
- 04/04/14--07:31: _How watchdog journa...
- 04/04/14--07:55: _More than a dozen s...
- 04/07/14--06:31: _What's the point, W...
- 04/07/14--15:34: _Center black lung s...
- 04/08/14--13:38: _Help us win a Webby...
- 04/09/14--03:00: _Residents of pollut...
- 04/11/14--03:00: _Herbicide ban on ho...
- 04/11/14--09:05: _GAO report again fi...
- 04/11/14--12:20: _Why aren't more peo...
- 04/11/14--12:01: _Japan reaffirms its...
- 03/27/14--12:04: T-Mobile, Sprint score one in wireless war
- 03/28/14--07:20: Name calling won't silence investigative reporting
- 03/28/14--09:12: Treasury to Comerica: Take our money, please!
- 03/31/14--08:56: GOP opposition to Obamacare baffles Dr. Sullivan
- 04/01/14--13:51: New report ranks best, worst states for kids of all ethnicities
- 04/02/14--03:26: States target toxic chemicals as Washington fails to act
- 04/02/14--12:44: Supreme Court opens door to flood of political cash — again
- Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine was a finalist in the Multiplatform/Large category. The series, produced in partnership with the ABC News Investigative Unit, was written by Chris Hamby, edited by Ronnie Greene and Jim Morris, and included interactive graphics by Chris Zubak-Skees. IRE honored a team of 13 contributors to the project.
- Another Center project, Buried by Grain, was a finalist for Radio/Audio reporting. That report, produced in partnership with NPR, was written by Jim Morris and Howard Berkes.
- 04/03/14--12:58: McCutcheon ruling leaves room for legislative action
- 04/04/14--07:31: How watchdog journalism makes a difference
- 04/07/14--06:31: What's the point, WellPoint?
- 04/07/14--15:34: Center black lung series earns White House Correspondents’ Award
- 04/08/14--13:38: Help us win a Webby Award
- By 2018, the agency would conduct an average of 14,000 federal inspections and evaluations per year across the country. That’s a 33-percent dip from the annual EPA caseloads from 2005-09, and a 30-percent drop from 2012.
- By 2018, the EPA would initiate an average of 2,320 civil judicial and administrative enforcement cases a year in the five-year span. The drop: 41 percent from 2005-09 figures, and 23 percent from 2012.
- And, by 2018, the agency envisions concluding 2,000 civil judicial and administrative enforcement cases per year, a 47-percent dip from the caseloads in 2005-09, and a 33-percent cut from 2012.
- 04/11/14--09:05: GAO report again finds black lung proposal supported by science
- 04/11/14--12:20: Why aren't more people alarmed by the falling numbers of reporters?
- 04/11/14--12:01: Japan reaffirms its plan to produce plutonium
T-Mobile USA Inc.’s campaign to limit its rivals’ access to new radio frequencies in an upcoming government auction just got a shot in the arm.
A spectrum auction held last month by the Federal Communications Commission, and another planned for the fall will likely raise the $7 billion needed to fund FirstNet, a nationwide interoperable radio network that police, fire fighters and medical technicians can use during emergencies, according to Phil Verveer, senior counsel to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Verveer’s comments were published in the trade journal Broadcasting & Cable.
"We've had one auction, we're going to have another that is going to help meet the statutory requirements with respect to contributions,” Verveer was quoted as saying at a telecommunications conference in Washington. “We're going to be very close or perhaps even have met them by the time the incentive auction takes place."
The FCC raised $1.6 billion in last month’s auction, and it expects to bring in the remaining amount, at least $5.4 billion, from another auction of airwaves later this year.
Reaching that milestone relieves some pressure on the agency to maximize revenue from another airwaves auction scheduled for next year, in which T-Mobile and its wireless rivals will compete for rare and valuable spectrum in the 600-megahertz band.
Wireless carriers covet these so-called low-band frequencies because they travel farther and penetrate buildings better than higher frequencies, characteristics needed to handle more traffic and to build a nationwide network that doesn’t drop calls or lose Internet connections. The top four wireless carriers are waging a high-stakes lobbying war in Washington, each trying to convince the FCC to write auction rules favorable to their company.
AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. already own a combined 74 percent of the low-band signals, according to FCC data. Sprint Corp., the distant No. 3 carrier, has some low-band spectrum, and No. 4 T-Mobile has almost none.
The smaller companies say they need the frequencies to improve their networks to compete with the larger two carriers. If AT&T and Verizon outbid rivals for most of the valuable spectrum, Sprint and T-Mobile lobbyists, as well as anti-trust lawyers in the Justice Department, say the bigger rivals will dominate the market, leading to a duopoly, higher prices and less technological innovation.
The FCC is considering limiting how much low-band spectrum AT&T and Verizon can win. The two companies argue that such limits would reduce the auction revenue and threaten the FCC’s ability to raise money for the emergency radio network. They also say that TV stations won’t put their signals up for sale if they think the bidding will be limited.
The FCC “should adopt rules that encourage the broadest possible participation by broadcasters and wireless carriers alike, in order to maximize the amount of spectrum re-purposed for mobile broadband and fund FirstNet and deficit reduction,” Verizon said in a Jan. 24 filing with the FCC.
T-Mobile has predicted that the FCC will raise the $7 billion for FirstNet before the 600 megahertz auction. “FirstNet is well on its way to being fully funded prior to the commencement of the incentive auction,” the company said in a Feb. 27 FCC filing after the February auction closed. “Any arguments that the Commission’s design for the incentive auction may somehow jeopardize FirstNet funding should be recognized for what they are: disingenuous distractions.”
If Verveer’s prediction holds, raising enough money for FirstNet and other financial obligations “would seem to weaken [AT&T’s and Verizon’s] argument,” said Jeff Silva, senior policy director for telecommunications at Medley Global Advisors in Washington, D.C.
But the two big carriers’ argument won’t be completely undermined, said Paul Gallant, a managing director at Guggenheim Securities. Verveer’s “statement does undercut one of AT&T and Verizon’s arguments,” Gallant said in an email. “But the carriers also say that bidding limits also could send a negative signal to broadcasters who are thinking of participating, and that’s still a live argument carriers can make to the FCC.”
T-Mobile and Verizon declined to comment. AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris declined to comment on Verveer’s statements but reiterated the company’s position that spectrum limits will reduce auction revenues and threaten funding for FirstNet and deficit reduction.
The 2011 law that authorized the spectrum auctions required the FCC to raise the money to build FirstNet and also to use some proceeds to pay down the national deficit, among other obligations.
After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, a commission called for a communications system to connect law enforcement, fire fighters and emergency medical crews nationwide. When responding to the attack in New York, commanders on the ground lost radio contact with responders in the towers and were unable to tell them to evacuate before the buildings collapsed.
A funny thing happened a week ago when a corporate spokesman slammed one of our excellent reporters via Twitter, labeling him “lazy and unethical.” Ed McFadden of Verizon later apologized for his “rude comment that was unbecoming of me.”
At the end of the day, this PR person did The Center for Public Integrity a favor with his name-calling and apology — he simply drove more Web traffic our way.
It began when Senior Reporter Allan Holmes, who covers broadband and Internet governance, was working on an investigation into corporate concentration in the wireless communications industry. Not surprisingly, the biggest firms are seeking to gain even more control of wireless spectrum. Holmes, who joined the Center from Bloomberg News, naturally sought to obtain interviews and information from the industry’s biggest players, Verizon and AT&T, in response to his findings. The companies stonewalled him.
Holmes made more than six attempts over two months to get comments from these companies, but ultimately Verizon and AT&T didn’t respond to his interview requests. When spokesmen for these companies responded to Allan’s written questions, they gave general statements that were entirely unresponsive to the specific questions being asked.
Despite that unresponsiveness, The Center for Public Integrity went ahead and published its investigation Friday morning, March 21st, under the headline: “Wireless companies fight for their futures: A rare auction of valuable frequencies has sent the big four carriers on a lobbying spree that may determine who controls your cell phone.” The report was posted on the Center’s own website and picked up by Slate and others.
It was an important story for several reasons. The spectrum that’s up for sale is highly coveted because it allows transmissions to travel long distances, penetrate buildings and results in fewer dropped calls and connections. Good spectrum is crucial for wireless companies to attract customers who are sending an ever-increasing amount of information to smartphones and computer tablets.
The four biggest carriers together spent $37.3 million in 2013 trying to influence lawmakers and the FCC, even though the auction was still more than a year away. AT&T and Verizon have spent about four times as much as T-Mobile and Sprint. Again, AT&T and Verizon didn’t reply to repeated requests to comment on their spending on spectrum lobbying.
McFadden, Executive Director of External Communications at Verizon Communications, was among those who hadn’t responded to Allan’s multiple interview requests and written questions. Nevertheless, after our report was published, he tweeted “This happens when a lazy and unethical reporter writes with something other than his crayons.”
Enter John Dunbar, Allan’s Managing Editor. Dunbar had a conversation with McFadden, which led to his apology. By all accounts, this was a robust conversation, in which McFadden’s tweet was described as slanderous. McFadden seems to have agreed, or at least thought more carefully about what he had written.
By mid-afternoon, he tweeted: “I apologize to [Allan Holmes] for referring to him as ‘lazy and unethical,’ a rude comment that was unbecoming of me.”
Soon, more media organizations were picking up the original report and the story of the tweets, and Web traffic grew even further. The auction spectrum report was given a boost on Digg.com and traffic swelled. Within the next few days, it became the hottest item on our website. Thank you, Verizon.
Although the big wireless companies don’t like it, the accuracy of our reporting has not been called into question. Name calling is a technique, an often-practiced form of ridicule, employed to mislead or overwhelm the facts at hand. This time, name calling didn’t work. The facts are the facts as we reported them. Thank you Allan Holmes and John Dunbar.
We are planning further reports on the costly and increasingly concentrated wireless industry.
Until next time,
The Treasury Department paid Comerica Inc. tens of millions of dollars for a government payment card that left poor and disabled Americans vulnerable to fraud and shoddy customer service, a new inspector general report says.
Trying to save money, Treasury officials pressured vulnerable citizens to use the Direct Express cards. Comerica issued the cards under a contract that was supposed to be cost-free for the government and relatively cheap for consumers. Officials spent years promoting the card at road shows around the country.
Yet the department did not properly oversee the program, Treasury’s inspector general concluded in the report to be released today. Officials ignored available data about fees charged to customers and call center wait times, and based many decisions on unverified information from Comerica, according to a report due out Friday by Treasury’s inspector general.
Taxpayers ended up paying the bank $32.5 million through March 2013 under an amended deal that officials offered without requiring any evidence that Comerica needed the money or would use it for this program, the report says. The payments turned a potential loss of $24.2 million into $8.4 million of profit for Comerica, it says.
Comerica never formally requested additional payments from Treasury, the report says.
A Treasury official justified the unexpected payments by saying the Department “did not want Comerica to fail for providing the government a service,” the report says. It notes that Comerica had $65.2 billion in assets and equity of $7.2 billion as of December.
The audit broadly criticizes the bureau’s record-keeping, noting that “documentation supporting key decisions and the ongoing monitoring of a program involving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and the delivery of payments to millions of Federal beneficiaries was often lacking.”
The Direct Express card was created as an alternative to paper checks that Treasury has phased out in an effort to cut costs.
The Center for Public Integrity first reported on the extra payments and other problems with Direct Express in June. That story detailed Treasury’s high-pressure marketing tactics, including mailing cards to thousands of poor and disabled people who had not requested them; and widespread fraud that cut off thousands more from their only source of income.
“It’s disappointing that Treasury spent so much time pushing people to use these cards and so little time making sure the program was being run properly,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging and last year conducted a hearing about the cards.
“They needlessly wasted more than $32 million, while at the same time failed to focus on fraud and customer service issues,” Nelson said.
The IG report describes a series of decisions that effectively left the card program on autopilot. Officials kept close track of enrollments and how much money was loaded onto the cards, but “did not review (and in some cases did not realize that it had)” monthly reports on Comerica’s revenue from fees and other sources, identity verification and other sensitive parts of the program.
Officials stood by as Comerica failed to deliver on key contract terms, such as offering online bill payment services. Treasury did not even realize Comerica had fallen short until the bank told them.
Yet they readily agreed to pay Comerica retroactively for cards that had already been issued.
The report’s finding that “Comerica’s contract with the government was renewed and increased without adequate scrutiny is particularly disturbing given the obstacles that Direct Express put in place to prevent seniors from opting out of the system,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who questioned Treasury officials about the program last year during a hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
“The announcement in January that Treasury will rebid this contract is an important first step, but we need to stand by our seniors and be vigilant right now,” Warren said.
Treasury justified the payments by saying the number of cardholders rose dramatically as a deadline to stop using paper checks neared. Earlier, when it was selecting a bank to issue the cards, Comerica had claimed that it could handle up to 20 million card users without charging the government a penny.
Treasury awards deals to banks without competitive bids under an obscure authority found in a Civil War-era banking law allows the department to select “financial agents” for work that requires contractors who can be held to a higher standard of responsibility to customers, called a “fiduciary standard.” The agency also routinely renews financial agency deals and boosts compensation to agents without opening them to new bids.
Treasury, however, announced that it would rebid the Direct Express contract shortly after the Center’s earlier report was published.
An official from the bureau that manages Direct Express declined to comment or discuss the reprot, but noted in an email that “the word ‘mismanagement’ is not used” by the inspector general.
The inspector general said Treasury’s official response failed to address several recommendations, including to research contract costs more thoroughly and assess bidders’ ability to follow through on promises they make during the less-formal bidding process for financial agency agreements.
The Republican leadership’s intense opposition to the Affordable Care Act clearly baffles — and disappoints — one of the party’s most admired figures, former Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis W. Sullivan.
Speaking at the opening session of the Association of Health Care Journalists 2014 conference in Denver last Thursday, Sullivan, the former president of the Morehouse School of Medicine who served as HHS Secretary during the George H. W. Bush administration, noted that many of the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act are based on the reform proposals he and other Republicans crafted more than two decades ago.
“Many of the features of the Affordable Care Act are part of what we proposed back in 1991,” he said, mentioning in particular the individual mandate. That provision — the requirement that Americans enroll in a private health insurance plan if they are not eligible for a government program like Medicare or Medicaid — is among the most vilified by today’s GOP.
“If they were supportive of it then, why are they so opposed to it now?” he asked.
This was not the first time Sullivan has expressed support for the concepts behind the reform law.
“If implemented the way it should be, (the law) will result in more people having access to health insurance, and improve the health status of our citizens," Sullivan told the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiserlast September.
In another interview with the Anniston (Ala.) Starin November he stated unequivocally, “I’m for the Affordable Care Act.” He added, “It’s an imperfect bill and has a number of things that need to be addressed, but rather than working to try to dismantle it, we should work to improve it.”
He went on to say that the plan he developed in 1991 with help and support from other Republicans — including those who are leading the charge against Obamacare today — “had the similar concept of the health insurance exchange.” That plan also would have provided subsidies to help low-income individuals and families afford coverage, just as the Affordable Care Act does.
“But now the Republican Party is attacking the same concept,” he said. “I’m not for that kind of political one-upmanship.”
Sullivan is especially dismayed that so many Republican governors, including Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, where Sullivan was born and still lives, have refused to expand the Medicaid program to bring more low-incomes individuals and families into coverage, as the Affordable Care Act makes possible.
Deal has said expanding Medicaid “is something our state cannot afford,” even with the federal government paying 100 percent of the cost of expansion during the first three years and 90 percent after that.
“I think it is probably unrealistic to expect that promise to be fulfilled in the long term, simply because of the financial status that the federal government is in,” Deal said during the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012.
Sullivan told the journalists Thursday that, in his view, Georgia can’t afford not to expand Medicaid.
Not only would the expansion bring hundreds of thousands of Georgians into coverage, the millions of dollars the federal government would send to the Peach State “would be in circulation” in the state, he said. That money, he added, would help pay the salaries of nurses and other health care providers and help keep the doors open at big public hospitals like Atlanta’s Grady Memorial.
Since Sullivan’s tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services ended in 1993, he has remained active in efforts to improve the health of Americans and reduce health care disparities among people of color. Honored by the Republican National Committee in February — Black History Month — as one of three GOP “trailblazers” (along with former Assistant Secretary of Labor William Brooks and former Ohio Supreme Court Judge Sara J. Harper), he now heads the Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions.
The goal of the Alliance, according to its website, is to “provide the focused leadership, deep commitment, and sustainable efforts that will result in the addition to our nation’s workforce of more well-trained health professionals from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.”
Among the areas most in need of an expanded workforce, Sullivan says, is oral health. In an op-ed in The New York Times in April 2012, Sullivan called on more states to follow Alaska and Minnesota’s lead in passing legislation to allow mid-level dental professionals to treat patients, especially in areas where few dentists practice.
Sullivan, who turned 80 last November, is showing no signs of slowing down. The country would be well served if politicians on both sides of the aisle would follow behind the trail he continues to blaze to improve the health of all Americans.
Black and Latino kids, along with other ethnic minorities, will comprise the majority of U.S. children in four years, but many such kids face multiple obstacles to education and job preparation in certain states, says a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
African-American kids face especially daunting obstacles in Mississippi, Wisconsin and Michigan. Native American kids face the biggest challenges in South Dakota. Latino children are faring especially poorly in Alabama, Rhode Island and Nevada. West Virginia and Mississippi showed the worst results for white kids. These are among the conclusions of “The Race for Results” report released Tuesday by Casey, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization dedicated to solving problems faced by families and children.
The stakes are especially high, the report notes, based on the near-term demographics. Latino children, it says, now represent half the child population of California and Texas, the country’s most populous states.
“By 2018,” the report says, “children of color will represent a majority of children. By 2030, the majority of the U.S. labor force will be people of color.”
“The price of letting any group fall behind, already unacceptably high, will get higher,” the report warns. “We are truly in a race against time to deliver better results for our kids.”
To create searchable, state-by-state portraits, the report’s researchers examined 12 indices commonly used to measure the potential for joining the middle class and succeeding. Among these are rates of pre-school enrollment; rates of proficiency at math in 8th grade; rates of children in two-parent families; and rates of young people 25 to 29 who have completed an associate’s degree or higher. Results are disaggregated by ethnicity and state and can be custom built for communities.
No one ethnic group nationally was at the top of all milestones measured. But overall, Asian and Pacific Islander children ranked first, with an index score of 776 out of a 1,000 possible points. White kids scored 704 and Latino, Native-American and African-American kids nationally were ranked “distressingly lower,” the report said, at 404, 387 and 345, respectively.
Among the states with relatively substantial Asian populations, Asian kids did best in New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois. White kids scored highest in Massachusetts and New Jersey. And Latinos fared best, among states with significant Hispanic populations, in Virginia, Maryland and Florida. Black kids did best in Massachusetts and Maryland, among states that have a sizable African-American demographic.
Research cited in the report found that if the academic performance of Latino and African-American children had caught up with white children by 1998, the country’s gross domestic product in 2008 would have been $525 billion greater. In addition to issuing state-by-state findings, the report recommends programs and policies that have succeeded in lifting up children facing disadvantages.
Among the programs the report highlights are the Parents as Teachers National Center (PAT) early-reading program, which has proven effective at helping better prepare minority children for kindergarten. The report also suggests using data analysis to target investments to reach children in communities that most need support. These same communities, the report urges, can benefit from targeted plans to include families in workforce development and job creation.
The Center for Public Integrity has received grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to pursue independent reporting.
In Vermont, the Senate has just passed a bill potentially empowering the Green Mountain State to ban chemicals it deems harmful to consumers. Some 3,000 miles away, in Washington State, environmental reformers weren’t as successful: A bill to ban six toxic flame retardants died in the Senate, beaten back by industry opposition and politicians’ cries of state overreaching.
In state capitols from Maine to Oregon, environmental advocates are filing bills to identify and ban noxious chemicals and industry groups are fighting back with pointed rebukes and high-pitched lobbying. Toxic reform legislation is either breathing with new life or being extinguished altogether.
The toxics tug-of-war in state houses is direct fallout from the muddled environmental politicking of Washington, D.C.
In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, a federal framework intended to safeguard the public from dangerous chemicals. Yet in the nearly four decades since, TSCA, as it is known, has done little more than gather dust. Among tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency has “only been able to require testing on a little more than 200 existing chemicals,” and banned five, the EPA told The Center for Public Integrity.
Yet three years to the month since the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg proposed sweeping change through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, the TSCA overhaul remains in the works, with proposals, counter-proposals and criticisms about the working draft’s fine print.
Fed up with logjams in D.C., state legislators are filing hundreds of measures in their own states to do what the federal government hasn’t — take action against destructive chemicals, by singling out the most dangerous toxins and seeking to remove them from shelves.
While the political smoke continues in Washington, the chemical reform fire is playing out in statehouses from Montpelier to Olympia.
At least 442 bills involving toxics and chemicals have been filed in 2014, or refiled from previous sessions, covering 39 states, according to an environmental health legislation database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. A year earlier, 399 such bills were filed and the year before that, the database shows, more than 500.
“There’s only so much you will say, ‘We can wait and see. It will be great if the feds do something.’ I think people are losing patience,” said Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency for Natural Resources.
As the Center for Public Integrity reported last year, the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups fight nearly every state measure, contending that a patchwork of state laws would do more harm than good, and that true change should come through TSCA. The industry’s statehouse pushback, fueled by a chemical advocacy group that spends tens of millions of lobbying dollars along with making political campaign donations, has helped beat back hundreds of state bills in recent years.
Vermont’s Johnson is among the state officials who understand the argument that having multitudes of differing state laws “is not the way to go.” Yet in his state, as in others, the argument of waiting for Congress to act has grown stale.
“I’ve been personally to the statehouse here in Vermont for five years in a row. ‘Let’s wait and see what the feds do,’” said Johnson, who serves on the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state leaders. “It’s getting pretty old.”
Bills filed, and fought, from Vermont to Washington State
Last week in Vermont, the Senate approved Senate Bill 239, which would allow the state Department of Health to “identify and publish a list of chemicals of high concern,” following the lead of states such as Washington and Maine. The bill would require manufacturers of products using such chemicals to notify the state, “and to replace the chemical with a safer alternative.”
“Given where we are with the toxics reform at the federal level; given that we haven’t seen movement there; and given that we have over 60,000 chemicals that haven’t been adequately tested for their effect on public health, this is the way to begin,” the bill sponsor, Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, told a Vermont news website.
The bill must clear the House before becoming law.
As in other states, the toxics legislation faces opposition from industry, with lobbyists describing it as another piece in a patchwork of state laws across the U.S.
The Toy Industry Association, a trade group composed of 700 members, has gone on record opposing the bill, citing what it views as a “flawed scientific approach” as the basis for the measure, and the “immense cost to businesses” and the state.
“TIA commends the bill sponsors for their keen interest in the safety of children. We share that interest, and our industry is founded on the mission of bringing fun and joy to children’s lives,” the association wrote Vermont legislators.
“However, we have serious concerns regarding Senate Bill 239 as it does not consider the existing robust safety system for toys sold in this country — including federal regulation and international standards — and will create unnecessary burden on companies doing business in Vermont with arguably no measurable increase in safety.”
In Washington State, industry opposition helped quash the Toxic-Free Kids & Families Act. The measure would have banned six flame retardants on the state’s list of “Chemicals of High Concern for Children” — and put the onus on manufacturers to replace them with safer chemicals.
Sen. Sharon Nelson, a Democrat who has pushed toxics legislation for several years in Washington State, is among the legislators weary of waiting for the federal government to act. “We haven’t seen the changes at the federal level,” she said. “Ultimately the science will prevail, but it’s hard.”
As they had in previous sessions, the Association of Washington Business and the American Chemistry Council pushed back against the flame retardants bill, officially filing opposition to the proposal.
The bill died in the state Senate.
“I’ve seen every time we go into this across the nation, the chemistry council comes in behind the scenes and does a good job about casting questions: Should we be doing this at the state level? They’ve done a good job of just constantly either trying to water down the bills or kill them,” Senator Nelson said. “They’ve been effective. They are well-heeled lobbyists.”
Republican State Sen. Doug Ericksen, chair of the Washington legislature’s Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, said the bill as proposed was problematic, putting too much power in the hands of a state agency to potentially ban chemicals.
Ericksen said he proposed a compromise measure but Democrats didn’t go along. Sen. Nelson said that measure was watered down to ban chemicals already being phased out.
In a broader sense, Sen. Ericksen echoes the industry’s biggest complaint with state bills. “The issue you get into is creating an island in Washington State,” Ericksen said. “I would say it doesn’t help for Washington State to have a go it alone mentality.”
Brandon Housekeeper, an Association of Washington Business government affairs official, used the same phrasing as Ericksen in describing his group’s opposition, asking “Whether Washington should act alone as an island and ban chemicals used in commerce.”
Housekeeper said the AWB, which describes itself as the state’s “premiere advocate for the business community” representing 8,000 members, helped Ericksen create the alternate bill. “Just an out and out ban in these things in their use didn’t seem appropriate, so we proposed a different path to get to that result,” Housekeeper said.
How effective was the industry effort? “I think the opponents of the legislation obviously had some voice and hand in how legislators reacted to the legislation. Because I think we asked valid questions,” Housekeeper said.
The AWB’s slogan: “We mean business.” Ericksen said he listens to industry and “all different points of view.”
“The industry groups are not necessarily opposed to eliminating these harmful chemicals from these product lines,” he said. “They just find it difficult when they are mandated to be included in one state and mandated to be prohibited in another state.”
More state battles: Oregon, Connecticut, Maine
Legislators in other states have also filed bills this session to identify and remove unsafe chemicals. In state after state, the legislation encounters strong industry pushback, with critics working capitol hallways to douse reform proposals.
“Even if these bills don’t pass, it’s raising awareness,” said Oregon Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, who for several years has proposed a bill that would, like Washington State’s, create a state list of high priority chemicals for children’s health.
Again this year, the bill was shot down. “The industry fought it very hard,” the Oregon legislator said.
Creating lists of dangerous chemicals can make a difference, Keny-Guyer believes. “If companies see they are showing up in these things, there’s much more incentive for them to find safer chemicals,” she said.
In many states, getting from proposal to approved bill is a steep climb.
In Connecticut, advocates are again trying to win approval for a bill allowing the state to compile and maintain a list of harmful chemicals. Supporters crafted the bill so it would not cost the state government a penny.
That same measure was pitched in 2013 but failed when the proposal was talked to death by a committee and never came to a vote.
“We really feel like we’re doing everything we can to kind of build momentum, but we’re not resting on anything at this point. I know that the industry is continuing to fight the bill on a daily basis,” said Anne Hulick, coordinator for the nonprofit Coalition for a Safe & Healthy Connecticut. “I’m worried the opposition is building and we don’t see it.”
The lack of an updated TSCA is a “really big factor,” she said, in why states like Connecticut need their own laws to target hazardous chemicals.
In Maine, advocates are pushing legislation in a state where the Republican governor last year vetoed a bill intended to protect pregnant women and children from harmful chemicals, and where the head of the Department of Environmental Protection is a former lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council. A spokeswoman for the Maine DEP’s director, Patricia Aho, said any potential conflicts had been “thoroughly vetted” before she took office in 2011. The governor’s office said he vetoed bills that were “not good policy.”
This year’s toxic reform push is a direct offshoot of the languishing pace of TSCA overhaul in D.C.
“It’s huge,” said Beth Ahearn, political director for the Maine Conservation Voters. “It creates all the reason we’ve decided to go ahead on our own, because we cannot wait for TSCA reform.”
The U.S. Supreme Court today issued an opinion that is likely to further increase the flow of big money into politics.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court’s conservative-leaning justices struck down aggregate contribution limits to candidates and parties but kept base limits intact.
“The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
Thus, at the federal level, a donor may still only give no more than $2,600 to a candidate per election, no more than $5,000 per year to a single PAC and no more than $32,400 to a national party committee. But there is no longer a limit on how many candidates, party committees or PACs a single donor can financially support.
The decision is the most important since the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case in 2010, which allowed for unlimited corporate and union spending in races, a decision which led to the creation of super PACs — groups that cannot directly contribute to candidates’ campaigns but can spend money on uncoordinated advertisements encouraging people to vote for or against candidates.
“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Roberts continued. “If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”
Roberts was joined in the decision by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred, but he argued the court should go even further.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the majority’s conclusion relies on “faulty” legal analysis and “understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions.”
Taken together with Citizens United, he wrote, “today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”
Breyer was joined in his dissent by Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Until today, an individual donor could contribute no more than $2,600 per candidate per election, with a primary election and the general election counting as separate contests. At the same time, individuals were prohibited from contributing more than $48,600 to all federal candidates.
Donors were further subjected to an additional $74,600 aggregate limit on how much they could give to all parties and political action committees, meaning one person could give no more than $123,200 during the two-year election cycle.
During the 2012 election cycle, about 600 individuals hit the aggregate limit on donations to candidates, according to data provided to the Center for Public Integrity by the Center for Responsive Politics. And about 1,700 people hit the aggregate limit on donations to political parties.
More of these big-dollar donors favored Republicans with their giving than Democrats.
The Supreme Court's McCutcheon decision is also likely to increase the flow of money into state elections.
A dozen states and the District of Columbia impose aggregate limits of one form or another on campaign contributions, according to David Mitrani, an attorney at the Washington, D.C.-based firm Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb.
Aggregate contribution limits in the states “are unlikely to survive under the logic of the McCutcheon opinion,” Mitrani told the Center for Public Integrity.
People in natural gas drilling areas who complain about nauseating odors, nosebleeds and other symptoms they fear could be caused by shale development usually get the same response from state regulators: monitoring data show the air quality is fine.
A new study helps explain this discrepancy. The most commonly used air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they don’t catch toxic emissions that spike at various points during gas production, researchers reported Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health. The study was conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based near Pittsburgh.
A health survey the group released last year found that people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pa., in the Marcellus Shale, reported symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and nosebleeds, all of which could be caused by pollutants known to be emitted from gas sites. Similar problems have been reported by people who live in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the subject of a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel.
While residents want to know whether gas drilling is affecting the air near their homes — where emissions can vary dramatically over the course of a day — regulators generally use methods designed to assess long-term, regional air quality.
They're "misapplying the technology," said lead author David Brown, who conducted the study with three of his colleagues at the Environmental Health Project.
Stuart Batterman, an environmental health sciences professor at the University of Michigan, said the study underscores the need for specialized monitoring programs that target community health.
But creating these programs is difficult, Batterman said, because scientists don't fully understand the emissions coming from natural gas facilities. Air pollutants ebb and flow based on equipment malfunctions, maintenance activities and the weather. They're released from storage tanks, compressor stations and pipelines during every step of the process: drilling, hydraulic fracturing, production, and processing.
"Unfortunately, the states don't have much in the way of discretionary funds,” to add monitors, Batterman said. “Their programs have been cut back because most legislatures are not funding their environmental agencies generously."
No easy solutions
The Pennsylvania report is the latest demonstration of how little is known about the health impacts of unconventional natural gas development, which uses hydraulic fracturing to extract tightly bound gas. In February, 190 experts from industry, government and the medical community gathered in Philadelphia to discuss major data gaps. The conclusions they reached were almost identical to those in a recent study in Environmental Science & Technology that cited a lack of "comprehensive" public health research.
Isobel Simpson, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California-Irvine who was not involved with the Pennsylvania study, said the group’s paper shows the lack of a one-size-fits-all solution.
"Air quality monitoring is complex, so you need a range of [methods] depending on what your goal is," she said. Is the research about asthma or cancer? Overall air quality or human health? "All of those weigh into the strategy you're using."
Many federal and state-run monitors average their data over 24 hours or take samples once every few days. It's a technique that's been used for decades to assess regional compliance with the Clean Air Act. But natural gas facilities have sporadic emission spikes that last just a few hours or minutes. These fleeting events, which release particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and other harmful toxins into the air, can quickly lead to localized health effects. When averaged over 24 hours, however, the spikes can easily be ignored.
The averaging technique is "useless" for detecting pollution spikes, said Neil Carman, clean air director of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter in Texas. "If the police had to use 24-hour averaging for enforcing speed limits, nobody would ever speed. It would average out."
The situation in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, which spans an area nearly twice the size of Massachusetts, is particularly problematic because there's little monitoring of any kind. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — the state's environmental regulator — operates just five permanent air monitors in the region, none of them located in heavily drilled areas.
Instead, most of the monitoring in the Eagle Ford is conducted through sporadic TCEQ surveys or investigations of citizen complaints.
But spot monitoring can only catch a fraction of the emission spikes.
"Attempts to capture these peaks with 24-hour [averages]; through periodic or one-time spot sampling (under 24 hours); or after a complaint has been filed, will most often miss times of peak exposure," the authors of the new study wrote.
Batterman, the University of Michigan professor, said 24-hour samples are still useful for long- term health studies, since pollutants like benzene and particulate matter can lead to chronic effects that don't show up until years or decades later.
Ideally, scientists should use a combination of methods to monitor long-term and acute impacts, he said, "but there are technology and cost issues."
The best way to analyze short-term impacts like skin rashes and headaches is to take frequent samples over a sustained period of time, said Beth Weinberger, a co-author of the new study. She and her colleagues assessed indoor air quality in 14 homes near drilling sites by taking measurements of fine particulate matter once a minute for up to 24 hours. After examining their data, they found that some homes had very high levels of particulate matter more than 30 percent of the time.
“It was alarming, because we realized if fine particulate matter was getting into the house, other things, like benzene and formaldehyde, probably were as well,” Brown said.
Weinberger said her group is now working with other organizations to find affordable monitors that would allow them to take indoor and outdoor samples so they can design better studies.
The limits of air monitoring are especially apparent when regulators respond to citizen complaints near drilling sites.
"The plume touchdowns or emission events are often quite short, and by the time anybody comes out there and sets up their monitoring [equipment], there's nothing to measure,” Batterman said. “I have some sympathies for the regulated community because it's very difficult to validate these exceedances that certainly occur."
In the Eagle Ford, the TCEQ has up to 30 days to investigate a complaint. In Pennsylvania, the deadline is usually two weeks. In Colorado, inspectors often respond within 24 hours, according to a spokesman for the state's Air Pollution Control Division. (The TCEQ refused to make any of its experts available for phone interviews.)
InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity reviewed more than a dozen TCEQ investigation reports on Eagle Ford oil and gas-related complaints. In most cases, regulators responded by taking instantaneous air readings next to industrial facilities. Some inspectors conducted an initial survey by sniffing the air for detectable odors, then returned days later with monitoring equipment. On several occasions, the instruments detected such high levels of contaminants that inspectors fled the site.
Weinberger said the TCEQ's practice of taking quick "grab samples" is "the perfect design" to miss detecting emission spikes.
"That's what you do if you're not interested in capturing episodic exposures," she said.
Weinberger said more frequent and consistent sampling is needed, such as monitoring once an hour for two weeks. Regulators can then compare the individual data points with existing health standards to see how often they're exceeded.
Even when scientists use the right monitoring techniques, it can be hard to figure out what the numbers mean.
Federal air quality standards exist for only six chemicals: ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and lead. All other pollutants, including dozens of volatile organic compounds, are managed by a patchwork of occupational standards and state guidelines.
Texas, for instance, uses short-term exposure guidelines of 180 parts per billion for benzene and 4,000 parts per billion for toluene to determine whether a situation requires further investigation.
Other states have different guidelines, and some chemicals have none at all because little is known about their health impacts. The guidelines have another flaw: They don't fully consider what happens when people are exposed to many chemicals at once, as is common near gas and oil production sites.
This report is part of a joint project by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel. Lisa Song is with InsideClimate News and Jim Morris is with the Center for Public Integrity. InsideClimate News reporter Zahra Hirji contributed to this article.
The Center for Public Integrity received four honors from the Investigative Reporters & Editors, IRE announced Thursday — including a top prize for Secrecy for Sale, a project by the Center’s International Consortium for Investigative Journalists exposing a global offshore money maze.
The ICIJ offshore project earned the top investigative reporting prize in IRE’s Multiplatform/Large publications category.
“ICIJ produced a tremendously ambitious international reporting effort that is awe-inspiring by every measure. A team of more than 100 journalists mined a collection of millions of pages of leaked documents exposing how wealthy people worldwide use offshore havens to hide fortunes and shrink their tax bills,” judges wrote.
”The investigation found that major financial institutions have served as accomplices, devising ways to park assets in front companies in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere. ICIJ … told the story in myriad ways, including a searchable database of offshore companies and trusts. The project prompted high profile resignations and civil and criminal investigations on four continents.”
Secrecy for Sale was also recognized as a finalist in the Print/Online-Large category, IRE said in announcing the winners. The IRE honored 22 contributors to the offshore money project, including Gerard Ryle, Marina Walker Guevara, Michael Hudson, Kimberley Porteous and David Donald from ICIJ and the Center for Public Integrity.
Two other Center investigative projects, produced by the organization’s environmental reporting team, were also recognized as finalists:
IRE is the nation’s foremost organization of investigative journalists. The organization’s top prize, the IRE Medal, was awarded to Guardian U.S. for The NSA Files.
Congratulations to all winners and finalists. See the complete list here.
For those riled by Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lifted limits on aggregate contributions, there was something of a silver lining — the court said Congress or the Federal Election Commission can take steps that might lessen the impact of the expected increase in contributions on the political system.
For example, regulators could limit the size of joint fundraising committees, which would address one of the chief complaints levied by critics of the ruling.
“We are encouraged the court encourages us to take regulatory action and we hope to work with our colleagues” to do so, FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, told the Center for Public Integrity Thursday after an agency meeting.
But given the deep partisan divide in Congress and the FEC’s tendency to deadlock on even minor issues, chances that new regulations related to the decision will be implemented are pretty slim.
While the three Democratic commissioners may push for changes such as increasing disclosure requirements, the FEC’s three Republicans are expected to support nothing more than matching the agency’s rules about aggregate limits to what’s explicitly laid out in the McCutcheon v. FEC decision.
Republican FEC Chairman Lee Goodman said he’s still assessing what, if anything, the FEC is “obligated” to do based on the ruling. But conforming the FEC’s rules on aggregate limits to agree with the ruling may not be needed, Goodman said.
The Supreme Court struck down overall limits on contributions, allowing people to donate to as many candidates and parties as they want. Individual contributions will still be capped.
Congress could create restrictions on transfers among candidates and political committees, limit the size of joint fundraising committees and beef up existing earmarking rules requiring added disclosure when a donor makes a contribution for a specific candidate through another person or group, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
Supporters of overall limits have argued they can help ensure campaign contributors don’t skirt rules limiting individual donations to candidates. Earmarking rules address that concern, Roberts wrote, and could be strengthened by requiring political action committees to support a certain number of candidates to prevent the groups from devoting too much of their money to a single candidate.
Vice Chairman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, said she hopes the commission can do something to soften the blow from McCutcheon but the odds are it won’t reach a consensus.
Some legislators are more hopeful. Hours after the Supreme Court's decision, U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, introduced legislation requiring contributions of at least $1,000 be reported within 48 hours to the FEC. Companion legislation is expected in the U.S. House of Representatives as well.
Meanwhile, Weintraub and Ravel issued a joint statement Wednesday criticizing the ruling: “It amplifies the voices of the few to the detriment of the many."
“At a time when average citizens believe that they are shut out of the political process, we are disappointed that the Court has instead magnified the influence of a tiny minority of wealthy players,” they wrote. “We hope that Congress and our colleagues will take the Court’s suggestions seriously and join us in enacting new measures to ensure adequate disclosure and secure the integrity of our campaign finance system.”
Michael Beckel contributed to this report.
Because of a yearlong investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, coal miners who are sick and dying with “black lung” will now have higher-quality medical reports and thus a better chance to get compensation for their terrible disease.
That this is the end result of our investigation is a fact.
We know this because the U.S. Labor Department said so specifically, which is unusual for a government agency. In the first line of an official Solicitor of Labor memo, the Center for Public Integrity’s published articles are cited as the reason for the Labor Department’s review of the black lung compensation program, and for the department’s reforms.
Normally, government agencies don’t like to give specific credit to the news media, although they often make a vague reference to an unnamed news article down in the body of a government report. In our experience, this is seldom done by name and in the first sentence.
As we reported recently, these reform initiatives, effective immediately, represent an attempt by the Labor Department to create a more level playing field for coal miners navigating a byzantine federal benefits system that often favors coal companies and the lawyers and doctors they enlist.
I believe the key reason Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith issued her memo to the offices of all regional solicitors, the government attorneys who can intervene in black lung cases, and made such an overt connection was the irrefutable nature of the Center’s work.
As reported by a young investigative superstar, Chris Hamby, in conjunction with the Brian Ross Investigative Unit of ABC News, the series revealed how doctors and lawyers, working on behalf of coal companies, have helped defeat hundreds of claims of miners sick and dying of black lung.
We demonstrated this with facts, showing how doctors from a Johns Hopkins medical unit rarely found black lung in any coal miner, greatly bolstering the cases made by the coal industry. The result for many of the sick miners was a denial of benefits under the compensation program.
We even published an amazing graphic comparing some 1,500 black lung cases decided since 2000 in which Johns Hopkins’ radiologists never found a case of complicated black lung, compared to other independent doctors who often did find such severe disease in these same cases. The Johns Hopkins black lung medical program was suspended pending a review in response to our reporting shortly after our stories were published.
In a similar way, the go-to law firm for many of the coal industry’s giants when they want to beat back a miner’s claim for benefits has also faced new investigative scrutiny after the Center revealed its practice of withholding key evidence.
This law firm, Jackson Kelly PLLC, has served the coal industry for almost two centuries. It has offices throughout Appalachia, as well as in Denver and Washington, D.C., and defends companies accused of polluting the environment, marketing dangerous drugs or discriminating against workers. It helps corporations avoid regulations, drafts bills and lobbies legislators. Its bailiwick, though, is mining. U.S. News & World Report recently named it the nation’s top firm in mining law.
The firm’s approach to cases is particularly significant now, as government scientists are documenting a resurgence of black lung disease, and the number of federal claims for benefits in increasing.
As part of our work, the Center contacted the West Virginia Office of Disciplinary Counsel and asked whether action would be taken against the firm. The office opened investigations into three Jackson Kelly lawyers, although to date, they have not been charged with any wrongdoing.
The new reform measures being implemented by the Labor Department include a pilot program that would provide some miners with an additional medical report, instructions to government lawyers across the country to intervene in some appeals and increased training for doctors and government officials. We know that these actions are already being used in courtrooms, where The Center for Public Integrity’s investigation has been widely cited.
“We really think this is going to create more balance and fairness,” said Gary Steinberg, the acting director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, which oversees the black lung benefits program. “Our goal is that it will result in an increase in the number of awards because of an increased quality in the reports and quality in the decisions.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the Labor Department’s initiatives “a step in the right direction,” and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said they were "a good first step toward leveling the playing field.” Both noted, however, that only some miners qualify for these initiatives, and called for further action.
Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., said: "While this is certainly an encouraging development, it’s far from what’s needed to ensure these miners and their families receive justice. I’ll continue to push the Department of Labor to make the necessary reforms to get this right.”
A spokesman for the National Mining Association declined to comment.
All of which is to demonstrate yet again why investigative journalism matters. It can make a direct difference in the lives of people whose voices have been suppressed by the clout of a powerful law firm and a prestigious hospital, both of which were doing the bidding of the deep-pocketed coal industry.
And by the way, “Breathless and Burdened” has won the prestigious Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting given by Harvard University and other recognition. It is also a finalist for other honors.
Until next time,
States from Wyoming to Maine are surveying the fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court’s high-stakes campaign finance decision this week in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which held that the federal government cannot prevent wealthy individuals from donating a limited amount of money to an unlimited number of candidates.
At least eight states — and possibly as many as 20 — could see similar laws overturned, depending on how regulators, government officials and judges interpret the McCutcheon ruling.
Conservative attorney Jim Bopp, who has been fighting campaign finance regulations for decades, told the Center for Public Integrity that states either need to repeal their existing aggregate limits on campaign contributions “or they’ll be sued.”
“We are challenging some of them already,” he said.
Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Wyoming and the District of Columbia all currently have laws on the books that are similar to the one struck down by the Supreme Court in McCutcheon, according to lawyers and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to strike down aggregate contribution limits to candidates and parties but kept base limits intact. Thus, at the federal level, a donor may still only give no more than $2,600 to a candidate per election, no more than $5,000 per year to a single PAC and no more than $32,400 to a national party committee. But there is no longer a limit on how many candidates, party committees or PACs a single donor can financially support.
Hours after the McCutcheon ruling came down, Massachusetts’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance announced it would “no longer enforce the $12,500 aggregate limit on the amount that an individual may contribute to all candidates.”
Spokesman Jason Tait said Massachusetts officials were also reviewing the current $5,000 aggregate limit that individuals may contribute to party committees.
Meanwhile, Jared DeMarinis, director of the Maryland Board of Elections’ candidacy and campaign finance division, told the Center for Public Integrity that the agency will be issuing new guidance “as soon as possible,” adding that “we won’t be waiting for a court case to see if the law is enforceable.”
Such rapid action, however, may not ensue in other places.
“We would have to wait for the legislature to make changes, unless a court ruled differently,” said Peggy Nighswonger, Wyoming’s elections director.
She added that lawmakers aren’t scheduled to reconvene until January 2015.
New York Board of Elections spokesman Tom Connolly said he didn’t know if legislators would “be proactive” about passing a new law, adding that any kind of action “might be the result of a lawsuit.”
Officials in Connecticut, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., also said they were reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision.
But these states aren’t the only ones that could be affected by the McCutcheon ruling.
Indiana, for instance, imposes aggregate limits on the political contributions of corporations and labor unions.
Louisiana limits contributors from giving more than $100,000 to non-candidate committees during a four-year election cycle.
Washington limits how much money an individual can give party committees and political action committees during the final 21 days of a general election.
Alaska restricts the percentage of money that can be raised from out-of-state donors.
Additionally, other states — such as Kentucky and Minnesota — limit the amount of money a candidate can raise collectively from party committees or PACs.
Bopp also sees these laws as ripe for legal challenges.
“Whether the punishment is on the receiver or the donor, it has the same effect,” Bopp said.
“It’s an aggregate limit that’s unconstitutional,” he continued. “Why would you doubt it?”
But others — including many state campaign regulators themselves — are not yet convinced their rules are unconstitutional.
“I don’t see McCutcheon directly affecting Minnesota at all,” said Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the state’s campaign finance and public disclosure board.
Goldsmith said he would not characterize Minnesota’s law — which limits the combined amount of money a single candidate can receive from all political committees, lobbyists and large-dollar campaign donors — as a “close relation” to the federal law overturned by McCutcheon.
And Sarah Jackson, executive director of Kentucky’s Registry of Election Finance, said that “there doesn’t seem to be anything immediate that needs to be done.”
“We don’t have a law that’s exactly like what was struck down,” she continued.
Kentucky’s rules prohibit candidates from collecting more than 50 percent of their campaign funds from party committees, or from collecting more than 50 percent of their campaign money from PACs.
Likewise, Paul S. Ryan, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center — which encourages the government to implement campaign finance reform measures — said state caps on what percentage of money candidates collect from political parties or from PACs may not be “automatically invalid.”
Nevertheless, he also issued a stark admonition.
“I wouldn’t consider any campaign finance law safe with this Supreme Court.”
Executives at health insurance giant WellPoint are predicting they will have to implement “double-digit plus” rate increases next year, demonstrating once again just how politically tone deaf and profit-obsessed they apparently are.
When I read WellPoint CEO Joe Swedish comments in Modern Healthcare that, there will “undoubtedly be remarkable price increases” for health insurance sold through the Obamacare-created exchanges, I remembered the outrage his firm provoked four years ago when it told its Anthem Blue Cross of California policyholders that it planned to hike their premiums by as much as 39 percent. When many of those policyholders complained to the media and members of Congress, it all but assured the passage a few weeks later of the Affordable Care Act, which contained numerous consumer protections and regulations the insurance industry hated.
Just before news of WellPoint’s proposed rate increase reached Capitol Hill in February 2010, reform advocates feared the legislation would indeed fall short of the needed votes.
But when WellPoint’s rate increase plans made headlines, Democrats seized on it, especially after California’s Republican Insurance Commissioner at the time, Steve Poizner, threatened legal action against the company.
The rate hikes “could have a devastating financial impact on hundreds of thousands” of the company’s policyholders, Poizner wrote in a letter to then-CEO Angela Braly.
In Washington, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee — whose district included many of the 800,000 Californians affected by the proposesd rate increase — launched an investigation and sent a letter to Braly asking her to justify the company’s actions.
In her own letter to Braly, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius wrote that the WellPoint proposal "reminds us that too many Americans can be left with unaffordable insurance each time the rates or rules change in the private market.”
The proposed rate increase, which came just days after the company reported $4.7 billion in profits for 2009, almost twice as much as the year before, also gave President Obama what might have been his most effective talking point for reform. “If we don't act, this is just a preview of coming attractions,” Obama said. “Premiums will continue to rise for folks with insurance. Millions more will lose their coverage altogether (and) our deficits will continue to grow larger.”
Within six weeks, Obama was able to sign into law the bill that undoubtedly will be his most important legacy.
Four years later — almost to the day — WellPoint executives were once again talking about massive rate increases.
At WellPoint’s annual “investor day” on March 21, Executive Vice President Ken Goulet said he expected rate increases for 2015 to be “in double-digit plus.”
That bombshell came just moments after he told the shareholders and Wall Street financial analysts in the room that the company felt good about how it had priced its plans on the exchanges.
“We’re very optimistic as to where we are,” Goulet was quoted as saying. He added that the average age of folks who enrolled in WellPoint’s plans “came in right where we expected it to be.”
Earlier that day, by the way, WellPoint raised its 2014 profit forecast after saying it expected to add more than a million new customers — with half of them coming from the Obamacare exchanges — by the end of this year.
Once again, HHS Secretary Sebelius was ready with a response. Discounting WellPoint’s prediction, she said that overall, premium increases next year would be “far less significant than they were before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.”
As Bloomberg News pointed out in a story about WellPoint’s investor day comments, people who bought their own insurance in 2009 for coverage in 2010 paid 13 percent more than the year before.
WellPoint found itself all alone in suggesting what its rates will be next year. No other company seemed the least bit interested in making predictions. Humana declined to comment. An Aetna spokeswoman was quoted as saying only that, “It’s too early to say.”
Which of course it is. Insurers have two more months to analyze claims data and other numbers before they’re required to let the government know what they plan to charge for exchange plans in 2015.
Meanwhile, Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, which is supporting a ballot initiative that would give California’s insurance commissioner the authority to reject unreasonable rate increases, jumped on Goulet’s and Swedish’s comments.
"Is anyone surprised that WellPoint intends another year of outrageous rate increases when no one has the power to open their books and make them explain how they're spending consumers' premiums?” Consumer Watchdog’s Carmen Balber asked in a press release.
Just as it was opposed to many of the new regulations and consumer protections in the Affordable Care Act, WellPoint, along with other insurers, is fighting that California ballot initiative. But if it does indeed hike rates by double digits later this year, that initiative just might pass.
For the second straight year, the Center for Public Integrity has earned a prestigious White House Correspondents’ Association Award for stories exploring environmental and health hazards imperiling laborers.
Center reporter Chris Hamby earned the Edgar A. Poe Award for national reporting for Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine, an investigation produced in partnership with the ABC News Investigative Unit. Hamby will receive the award along with Brian Ross and Matthew Mosk of ABC News.
“This team showed how a true collaboration between media partners can break significant new ground on an already well-reported story, in this case the destructiveness of coal mining and the ‘black lung’ that miners have suffered from for many decades,” judges wrote.
The reports, spotlighting how coal industry lawyers and doctors helped beat back miners’ claims for health benefits, prompted significant reform. Johns Hopkins Medicine suspended operations in its black lung unit following the reports, and the Labor Department and members of Congress are pushing reform. The series has received other prestigious honors, including the Harvard Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
The White House Correspondents’ Association recognized two winners for the Poe reporting award. Along with Breathless and Burdened, Reuters was honored for “The Child Exchange: Inside America’s Underground Market for Adopted Children,” by Megan Twohey.
Other winners announced Monday were Politico, the New York Times, CNN and CBS News. Honorees will be recognized in a May 3 dinner attended by President Obama and the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
The No. 1 honor will be announced by the group later this month.
Do you agree?
Today’s announcement marks the first time the Center for Public Integrity has been nominated for a Webby Award.
Established in 1996, the Webby Awards are presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, whose 1,000-plus members include the likes of actor Kevin Spacey, musician David Bowie and journalism entrepreneur Arianna Huffington.
This year’s contest received 12,000 entries from more than 60 countries across dozens of categories.
The Webby Awards presents two honors in every category — a winner selected by the judges and a winner selected by online voters.
In the best political blog category, the Center for Public Integrity is competing against The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Truthdig and Exit Syria: Diaries from Za’atari, a project of Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service.
Voting in the “People’s Choice” portion of the contest ends on April 24, 2014.
All Webby Award winners will be announced on April 29.
In New Mexico, Navajo communities worry that uranium mining could contaminate the aquifer that feeds their drinking water. In southeastern states from Alabama to Virginia, residents fear a cluster of coal-powered plants will impact their health for generations. And in the Harlem section of Manhattan, advocates say the high rates of asthma among residents are a “direct result from breathing dirty air.”
For these communities and others abutting big industry, worry over failing health and pollution has intensified as the Environmental Protection Agency intends to significantly curtail the number of inspections and enforcement cases it brings nationwide over the next five years.
Those cutbacks — continuing a trend, the Center for Public Integrity found, that began in 2006 and accelerated last year — mean the EPA will conduct thousands fewer inspections and evaluations each year, and initiate and conclude thousands fewer judicial and administrative enforcement cases.
Near the end of its draft Strategic Plan for 2014-18, the EPA details the hard numbers:
The EPA said it intends to put its enforcement might behind major pollution cases across the country. Under its five-year plan, the agency would focus, for instance, on criminal cases “having the most significant health, environmental, and deterrence impacts.”
“The strategic decision to focus on high impact cases means that the overall number of cases will tend to be lower than in past years,” the EPA told the Center in a written statement. “We anticipate this strategy will result in a higher level of public health protection because of the significant impacts associated with the large cases, and the precedent they set for performance of large facilities across the country.”
Environmental advocates are not swayed. The planned reduction in federal enforcement comes as residents near industry fence lines say states are doing little to protect them.
Advocates: Cuts to impact minority, impoverished communities
“It’s this perfect storm,” said John Suttles, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit handling environmental cases in six states. “I think it’s a really dangerous situation.”
Suttles, based in North Carolina, points to recent environmental incidents in the state including the Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River. In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 29 years before taking office — a connection that has put the governor on the defensive over the state’s dealings with the utility giant.
Even before the spill, according to emails obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center, state regulators consulted Duke Energy before seeking to exclude citizens from settlement talks over groundwater pollution triggered by the utility’s coal ash ponds.
Beginning in 2009, the Center for Public Integrity exposed the environmental perils of coal ash ponds. Earlier this year, the EPA announced it would begin regulating the disposal of coal ash as part of a settlement to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
In the southeastern U.S., the environmental hazards extend beyond that one issue, said the law center, among those that have submitted comments to the EPA about its strategic plan.
Suttles told the EPA that each of the six states his group represents — Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia and Tennessee — ranks high in terms of adverse health effects from coal-fired plants. “Atlanta, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia, experience some of the worst health effects from power plants of any metro area in the country,” he wrote.
”It’s come as no surprise that you typically don’t see big power plants and large coal ash impoundments near communities with million-dollar homes,” Suttles said in an interview. “These big industrial sites, statistically, tend to be located disproportionately near poor and minority communities. … So if EPA pulls back, I think these communities are even going to face greater risks.”
EPA enforcement, he and other advocates say, can make a difference. “When EPA is on the beat and EPA is conducting inspections and launching investigations and bringing enforcement actions, it achieves kind of a magnified level of compliance.”
‘Next Generation Compliance’
The EPA’s plan to downshift the number of its inspections, and to focus its enforcement efforts more and more on “high impact” cases, is part of a larger strategy the agency calls “Next Generation Compliance.”
Much of the strategy focuses on using electronic reporting and advanced monitoring devices to keep tabs on pollution more accurately, allowing the agency to target enforcement cases.
“The most effective way to achieve compliance with the law is to make it easier to comply than to violate. EPA is using new technologies and lessons learned about what drives compliance to reduce pollution and improve results,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, in an article published in The Environmental Forum.
In the early 2000s, the number of EPA enforcement cases initiated and concluded increased steadily, peaking in 2006, a Center analysis of agency numbers shows. Since then, there has been a gradual decline.
In the most recent fiscal year, however, there was a significant drop, as the EPA noted that it had started pursuing larger, more complex cases that it expected would have a bigger payoff. The new strategic plan envisions a further reduction in the number of cases.
By 2018, the plan states, the number of cases concluded each year would be just over half of the average for the period 2000-2013. The number of inspections and evaluations would drop from an average of about 20,000 per year to roughly 14,000.
This approach is driven in part by budget constraints. During tight financial times, the agency said, it must be innovative. That includes using modern technology to monitor and target pollution.
“The burden of monitoring and compliance reporting will be reduced for the EPA and others by investing in state-of-the-art monitoring technology and supporting electronic interaction with the regulated community,” the agency said in its budget plan. “This will allow the EPA and others to more effectively deploy its inspection resources.”
Yet some environmental experts, including a former top EPA official, are, essentially, asking the EPA to back up its words with concrete action.
“In the final analysis, our government is measured by what it does and not what it says,” Eric Schaeffer, former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, and now director of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, wrote to the EPA.
“We hope that EPA is not signaling that it will reduce the quantity or quality of the enforcement actions it brings against the big polluters,” Schaeffer wrote. “There is no substitute for federal action in these situations, and EPA is already only able to address a handful of the serious violations that need attention.”
He added, “NextGen goals include making regulations ‘easier’ to comply with, but EPA will need to explain what that means. Presumably, it does not mean relaxing emission limits or adopting monitoring requirements that make it impossible to ever establish that a violation has occurred.”
The EPA told the Center it has been “aggressively going after significant sources of hazardous pollutants.” It cited high-profile cases including a Clean Water Act prosecution of Wal-Mart in California, and a Clean Air Act criminal and civil case against a New York plant that failed to use required pollution controls.
“To be clear, Next Gen will not replace traditional enforcement,” the agency said. “Next Gen is designed to support and strengthen our commitment to deter violations and increase compliance with environmental laws.”
Environmental worries in New Mexico, New York
The EPA’s Giles, in her write-up in the environmental publication, said advanced monitoring technologies “can help make these problems obsolete. Monitoring devices are becoming more accurate, more mobile, and cheaper, all of which are contributing to a revolution in how we find and fix pollution problems.”
That approach, she said, will be coupled with an EPA commitment to move away from paper reporting. For years, facilities have submitted reports to the agency on paper, and then an EPA staffer would manually enter the information on computer. “Or, in a time of declining budgets, the paper sits in a corner unopened, until someone has time to examine the data and see if any violations appear likely,” she wrote.
Important pollution information could fall through the cracks. E-reporting will move the reports more seamlessly — and make government more transparent, the agency said. “If you want to view paper records, you need to travel to a government office and sit there with your pad and pencil taking notes,” Giles noted. “How much easier would it be if the same data could be reviewed online, creating government that is more open and gives people information about facilities and pollution that affects them?”
Yet, in some corners of the U.S., environmental advocates say some of the neediest communities could be left out. One example: In New Mexico, where Native-American communities confront pollution concerns.
“Electronic means of communication don’t reach people in those communities, because people in those communities generally speaking don’t have access to the Internet,” said Douglas Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “There are large areas of Native American reservations where there isn’t any electricity, much less access to the Internet.”
For such communities, he said, in-person contact — with inspectors literally sitting down with residents and seeing what they see — is more meaningful.
“And it gives them the ability to take the EPA officials to their homes, and say, now look there’s this uranium mine … 100 yards across the street from us. Look at it, and feel the way the wind is blowing,” said Meiklejohn, who is among those to file memos challenging the EPA’s shifting enforcement focus.
“And that’s something that you can’t really get if you’re sitting in an office in Dallas or Washington or Denver or some other EPA office, and somebody writes that down on a piece of paper for you. It just doesn’t have the same impact.”
In New Mexico, the law center represents two Navajo communities working to prevent leach mining of uranium from contaminating groundwater. In another community in Albuquerque, residents are dealing with health issues and air pollution from a demolition debris landfill.
In New York, a group called WE ACT for Environmental Justice said the EPA cutbacks would be detrimental for Harlem, where, the organization said, residents suffer escalated rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease and development effects in babies are elevated as well.
“We cannot understand how the Agency will advance human health and cut some of the most critical activities of the Agency to reducing pollution across the board,” the community-based organization wrote to the EPA.
The EPA’s presence can make a tangible difference with polluters and those battling pollution, Jalonne L. White-Newsome, WE ACT’s federal policy analyst, said in an interview.
“Keeping that constant eye on our industrial partners can have drastic impact,” she said. “To me when you’re kind of taking those resources away, especially from the areas and the people that really need them, I don’t think it’s going to play out too well.”
Some communities, White-Newsome said, are “fighting to breathe clean air every day.”
“You’re saying public health is important, but this is a different message that communities are receiving,” White-Newsome said. “It’s great to write these great laws, but what it really boils down to is enforcement. And what is the message you are sending to the communities?
Facing political opposition and questions about its scientific evidence, Sri Lanka’s government has placed on hold its decision to ban the top-selling Monsanto herbicide glyphosate based on the weed killer’s alleged role in a deadly epidemic of kidney disease.
The delay represents a setback to efforts by some scientists and health officials, primarily in Sri Lanka and El Salvador, to remove the herbicide for its potential link to the mysterious kidney disease that has killed tens of thousands of agricultural workers.
Monsanto, other agrochemical producers and Sri Lankan officials, including Registrar of Pesticides Anura Wijesekara, have pushed back, noting that the ban rests on a theory that has not been proven.
“It is an interesting hypothesis, but we don’t have any evidence for it,” said Dr. Wijesekara, a consistent skeptic of curbs on agrichemicals. Banning glyphosate, he said, “will affect the tea plantations and also the [rice] paddy cultivation drastically.”
For more than two years, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has examined a rare form of kidney disease devastating agricultural workers in Central America, Sri Lanka and India. Scientists suspect the malady is caused by a combination of factors including chronic dehydration from hard labor in tropical heat, and exposure to toxins such as pesticides.
As death tolls mount, the disease’s origins have yet to be fully uncovered. Now, the search for a cause has triggered a scientific back-and-forth spanning continents, with potential international repercussions.
On March 12, a Sri Lankan minister announced that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, after receiving a scientific report that “revealed that kidney disease was mainly caused by glyphosate,” was banning the herbicide. The decision followed publication of a scientific paper that laid out a new theory attributing widespread kidney failure among farmers to the popular herbicide. The study did not include new scientific data; its authors say they have original data supporting their conclusion, and are working to publish that information.
Since the announcement, Sri Lanka’ government-sponsored Pesticide Technical Committee, Monsanto and agrochemical industry groups have objected — and the ban has been placed on hold. Officials opposing the ban are seeking further meetings with the president, according to a report in the Sri Lankan daily The Island.
The office of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has not responded to interview requests.
The glyphosate theory
Sri Lanka is not the first country to target glyphosate for its alleged role in chronic kidney disease. El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly approved a ban on 53 agrichemicals including glyphosate last year, but it was not signed into law by the country’s president.
Recently Sri Lanka has drawn international attention for singling out glyphosate as a cause of the epidemic, based largely on a theory presented by the scientist Channa Jayasumana.
Under Dr. Jayasumana’s hypothesis, glyphosate bonds with toxic heavy metals in the environment such as cadmium and arsenic, forming stable compounds that are consumed in food and water and do not break down until reaching victims’ kidneys. A study in Sri Lanka by the World Health Organization detected both cadmium and glyphosate, as well as other pesticides and heavy metals, in the environment of endemic areas, and in kidney patients’ urine.
The missing step, contends Jayasumana, is the compound formed by glyphosate and one or more heavy metals. He notes that glyphosate was initially patented as a chelating agent, a substance useful in industrial processes for its ability to form strong chemical bonds with metals.
“Glyphosate acts as a carrier or a vector of these heavy metals to the kidney,” Jayasumana told ICIJ in March.
Monsanto disputes the idea that glyphosate is uniquely suited to bond with heavy metals. “There is no evidence that glyphosate complexes effectively with arsenic, cadmium, or other nephrotoxic metals,” said Monsanto’s Director of Corporate Affairs Thomas Helscher. “Glyphosate is actually a relatively poor chelator for heavy metals when compared to pharmacological chelation agents.”
Yet glyphosate does form strong bonds with heavy metals, according to scientists and academic studies consulted by ICIJ.
Glyphosate is a highly versatile chelator because its molecule includes three different chemical groups capable of bonding with metals. Studiesindicate that it forms strong bonds with heavy metals including calcium, manganese and iron. A study by Monsanto using computer modeling found that glyphosate is a less potent chelator for these metals than certain compounds found within plants, but it is unclear how this applies to glyphosate’s interactions with the broader environment.
Paul Capel, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said glyphosate formed stronger bonds with metals than those formed by other herbicides. “As far as I know, there are no other common herbicides that would have this same sort of strength of interactions with metals,” Capel said.
There is less scientific data regarding glyphosate’s capacity to bond with cadmium or arsenic. One study indicated that glyphosate does form strong bonds with cadmium, and Capel said that based on glyphosate’s chemical structure, it was likely to bond with cadmium and its strength if binding to arsenic is unknown.
An even more fundamental issue is raised by Jayasumana’s research: Proving the existence of the glyphosate-heavy metal compounds said to be at fault.
Jayasumana’s paper proposes a possible structure for such a compound, and says his team’s preliminary tests of well water used by kidney patients in Sri Lanka found glyphosate with high levels of calcium and other metals. The paper does not describe finding a compound containing cadmium or arsenic, the metals thought to be at fault, and data from the tests has yet to be published.
Jayasumana said his team has found the key compound in its lab tests, and plans to publish its findings. “We experimentally detected [the compound] in drinking water samples, some food items and in urine samples of CKDu patients,” Jayasumana said.
Sri Lanka pesticide official Wijesekara points to another flaw in the glyphosate theory, in his assessment: He maintains that glyphosate did not become popular in Sri Lanka until the late 1990s, after the onset of the epidemic, and that it was not until 2003 or 2004 that it became the leading herbicide in the affected regions.
“At the beginning of the disease, glyphosate was not there in the [rice] paddy fields,” Wijesekara said. “All the paddy farmers used paraquat at that time.”
Jayasumana disputes this point, saying glyphosate has been available in the affected areas of Sri Lanka since the 1980s.
His results — and Sri Lanka’s decision of whether to go forward with banning the world’s top-selling herbicide — will have repercussions beyond the island’s borders.
El Salvador recently elected a new president, Salvador Sánchez-Cerén, and proponents of the pesticide ban passed by El Salvador’s legislature last year hope the former guerilla commander will sign a prohibition into law. President-elect Sánchez-Cerén’s office did not respond to ICIJ’s inquiries.
In Brazil, a prosecutor recently requested a ban on glyphosate and other agrichemicals because he said the government had not fully reviewed their health and safety effects. Prosecutor Anselmo Lopes of Brazil’s Federal District told ICIJ that his request was unrelated to chronic kidney disease among agricultural workers, which has not been reported in Brazil.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it is now engaged in a registration review process for glyphosate, but has “not seen any pattern of kidney health effects” in its study of scientific literature. The U.S., like Brazil, has not had reports of unexplained kidney failure among agricultural workers. The EPA said it would act promptly if urgent public health risks emerged.
A longstanding federal proposal to lower coal miners’ exposure to the dust that can cause black lung disease is supported by substantial scientific evidence.
That’s the conclusion government auditors reached in 2012, answering demands for a study by members of Congress concerned about the rule. And it’s the conclusion the auditors reached again — after another congressional request for a study — in a report released this week.
The rule, proposed by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2010, remains under review at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget — with both the industry and miners’ advocates watching closely.
As industry leaders warn of dire economic consequences should the new standard take effect, miners’ advocates observe the delay with exasperation.
“It’s taking a really long time, and no one’s given us any reason for that,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.
At the heart of the rule are provisions cutting in half the amount of dust that is allowed in a mine’s air and requiring the use of monitors that provide continuous information about dust levels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a government research agency known as NIOSH, recommended the lower dust level in 1995, but attempts to implement this change have faltered.
The National Mining Association, a trade group, and many of the nation’s biggest coal companies have attacked the scientific basis of the proposed rule and argued that meeting the strict new limit isn’t feasible technologically or economically. These groups also have taken their case to the White House’s budget office, meeting with government officials last fall on two occasions. The union also met with these officials last November.
The mining association did not respond to a request for comment about the study released this week.
Members of Congress also have raised concerns about the rule, echoing industry complaints. In December 2011, House Republicans inserted language into an appropriations bill blocking implementation of the rule until the Government Accountability Office conducted an evaluation of the research underpinning the proposal. The resulting report, released in August 2012, found the rule scientifically well-grounded.
Nine months later, U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers of Kentucky and Jack Kingston of Georgia, both Republicans, asked the GAO to conduct the study that led to this week’s report. Rogers, who is up for re-election this year, counts the National Mining Association and other energy companies or trade groups among the donors to his campaign. Spokespeople for Rogers and Kingston did not respond to requests for comment.
Repeatedly referencing its 2012 report, the GAO noted the body of scientific literature supporting the reduction of the dust limit and relayed comments from a panel of experts about the ways dust levels could be reduced using better ventilation and water sprays, among other methods.
In its most recent regulatory agenda, released last November, MSHA said it anticipated the rule would be finalized last December. Agency spokesperson Amy Louviere, in a statement, didn’t elaborate on the status of the rule, but noted, “Miners continue to get black lung disease.”
A 2012 Center for Public Integrity-NPR investigation detailed how, after years of steady decline in disease rates following landmark 1969 legislation, the prevalence of black lung has been increasing since the late 1990s. Of particular concern to government researchers: A trend toward younger miners contracting a more severe, fast-progressing form of the illness.
In 2013, a yearlong Center investigation, conducted in part with ABC News, revealed how prominent lawyers and doctors, working at the behest of the coal industry, had helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung. Since the report, members of Congress and the Labor Department have pushed for reforms to better protect workers.
A provocative question was raised this week at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford: Why aren't more Americans alarmed by the tremendous drop in the numbers of reporters covering the news?
America's total newsroom workforce dropped 17,000, from 55,000 in 2006 to 38,000 in 2012, according to the Pew Research Journalism Project. This plunge is due primarily to the digital disruption of newspapers.
One result: there is likely a lot less investigative journalism being done. Fewer watchdogs could mean this is a really good time to be a crook, suggested Alberto Ibarguen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and a Forum moderator.*
Frontline Producer Raney Aronson-Rath answered the question about the public's lack of alarm saying, "corruption doesn't show its face," it's invisible. Citizens simply don't know about the crucial covered-up information they are missing. Therefore, they don't see the corrosive effects of what has taken place year by year. Frontline is one of only a few investigative broadcast programs still on the air. The Forum got a glimpse of a tough future from Frontline about the government's increasing intrusion on our privacy, a program based on the latest leaked Edward Snowden NSA files.
The Skoll Forum highlighted the growing risks to journalists and especially investigative journalism worldwide. Paul Steiger, the founder of ProPublica, a digital investigative center based in New York, said that for the first time in his long career journalists are dying not by accident or from being caught in a crossfire, but because they are being targeted specifically for assassination. Journalists are considered a threat to governments and powerful interests almost everywhere.
Russian investigative journalist Irina Borogan spoke about how only a handful of Investigative journalists continue to function in Russia. Since Vladimir Putin came to power 14 years ago, at least 19 journalists have been killed, and in only one case have suspects been charged with murder and subsequently prosecuted.
Nigerian investigative publisher Omoyele Sowore has brought down a Nigerian state governor and a government minister by reporting on their lavish lifestyles, which are fueled by corruption. But Omoyele can no longer openly return to Nigeria because of his work. He suggested he still works undercover in Nigeria but has to be smuggled in and out of the country.
Even in the United States, where journalists are normally not targeted for their work, there is a chilling effect due to government investigations of journalist's sources, libel lawsuits and the pressures to find adequate support for independent investigative work that is almost always both risky and time-consuming.
Given all of these difficulties, why were these investigative journalists at the Forum so determined to keep going? "I just don't want to give up," said Borogan. "It is very inspiring to find the truth that other people try to hide."
The 11th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship concludes on Friday. The theme this year is "ambition." And though the focus of the conference was not just on journalism, the get-together has proved to be one of the best journalism conferences anywhere.
Until next week,
*The Center for Public Integrity has been funded over the years by the Knight Foundation but it is not a current funder.
Just weeks after Japan pledged to return hundreds of pounds of plutonium to the United States for disposal, the Japanese government on April 11 formally endorsed the completion of a factory designed to produce as much as eight tons of the nuclear explosive annually.
The plant is among the key elements of a long-range energy plan approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, reversing the previous government’s efforts to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. The move is generally viewed in Japan as unpopular with the public but has been welcomed by Japan’s utilities, which are struggling with massive debts.
The mammoth plant in the village of Rokkasho, scheduled to be completed in October, is meant to extract plutonium from spent commercial reactor fuel so it can be used in fresh fuel to be burned in the country’s reactors. “With safety first in mind always, Japan will promote…the completion of Rokkasho,” the energy plan states.
Publicly, the Obama administration has said little about Rokkasho, located on the Pacific Coast about 1,000 miles north of Tokyo. But privately, U.S. officials and experts say they are worried that Japan’s operation of the $22 billion facility – in the wake of the country’s closure of most of its nuclear power plants -- will add unnecessarily to its existing stockpile of 44 tons of plutonium, some of which is stored in Japan and some in Europe.
U.S. officials have complained to their Japanese counterparts that the plant lacks an adequate security force, making it a potential target for terrorists. They have also urged Japan to subject the plants’ workers to stringent background checks, a move the Japanese see as being at odds with privacy traditions. U.S. experts also have expressed concern that the plant’s operation will encourage other countries, including South Korea, to constructsimilar plutonium factories.
Japan’s stockpile of plutonium today ranks fifth in the world, behind four nuclear-weapons states. The Chinese government in recent weeks has repeatedly expressed concern about Japan’s plans to produce plutonium “far exceeding its normal needs.”
Tokyo’s decision to proceed follows a joint announcement on March 24 by Abe and President Obama and Abe, at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, that Japan would return hundreds of pounds of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium it received under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program in the 1960s and 1970s.
The two leaders said the transfer would further “our mutual goal” of keeping global stocks of nuclear explosive materials to a minimum, to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
But critics say Rokkasho’s operation would violate that goal.
“Getting Japan’s nuclear reactors, especially the most modern ones, back on line makes good sense,” said Robert Einhorn, who served as special advisor on nonproliferation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The decision to complete Rokkasho and pursue plutonium production, he said, “suggests that old habits, even highly flawed and expensive ones, die hard.”
Einhorn said opening Rokkasho “without realistic prospects of consuming the resulting plutonium in nuclear reactors would be inconsistent with Japan’s pledge to avoid the buildup of separated plutonium,” and “set an unfortunate example” to other countries about how to ensure energy security.
Japan’s new plan does say that the government will listen to the concerns of “local governments and international society” regarding its plutonium production. “And while we promote nuclear fuel reprocessing and the use of MOX, we will be sure to deal flexibly with our policy for a mid-term to long-term period,” the plan states with some ambiguity.
“We aim to opt for an energy supply system which is realistic, pragmatic and well balanced,” Minister of Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Friday.
Many communities in Japan are dependent on a stream of payments by the federal government to promote the siting of nuclear power plants, but a few have recently expressed concerns about the burning of plutonium-laced reactor fuels.
In early April, the city of Hakodate sued to halt work on a reactor that would be the first to burn such fuel. Hakodate’s Mayor Toshiki Kudo told reporters in Tokyo Thursday that the government and utility had ignored a plea from the municipality to suspend work on the Ohma plant and made “a unilateral announcement that it would go ahead with construction.”
Kudo called the plant “a terrorist target,” and said it could pose a greater safety risk than reactors fueled in other ways.
Angela Erika Kubo contributed to this article from Tokyo.