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Feb. 26, 2010 by Rena Steinzor

Eye on OIRA: King Coal

Thirty-eight years ago today, the dam holding back a massive coal-slurry impoundment (government-speak for a big pit filled with sludge) located in the middle of Buffalo Creek gave way, spilling 131 million gallons of black wastewater down the steep hills of West Virginia. The black waters eventually crested at 30 feet, washing away people, their houses, and their possessions. By the end of the catastrophe, 125 people were dead, 1,121 were injured, and more than 4,000 were left homeless.

Interviewed years later, Jack Spadaro, an engineer teaching at West Virginia’s School of Mines when the dam broke, told the West Virginia Gazette: “The thing that disgusted me was that people in the valley had been saying for years there was a problem there. They’d been evacuated many times before because of the fear of a dam failure.” Spadaro added, “I went through stacks and stacks of documents that went back into the ‘50s, and I think that, if somewhere along the way, there had been somebody within government willing to say, ‘Something really has to happen here,’ then those people would be alive and their families would be whole.”

When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson took office …

Feb. 25, 2010 by Matt Shudtz
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Add arsenic to the list of carcinogenic chemicals that will see delayed regulation from EPA as a result of OMB’s meddling. Last week, after almost seven years’ work, EPA released a draft assessment of the bladder and lung cancer risks posed by arsenic in drinking water. But the release of the final arsenic risk assessment is being delayed while EPA’s Science Advisory Board is asked to take yet another look at agency scientists’ work. As Jonathan Strong wrote in InsideEPA (sub. req'd) last week, the recursive review by SAB is “emboldening” activists who want to delay any potential new drinking water regulations.

Demanding external peer review of EPA scientists’ work on just about anything is a standard tactic industry uses to bide time before they have to shell out the money to clean up the messes they’ve made. Witness Sen. David Vitter’s …

Feb. 24, 2010 by Rebecca Bratspies
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A few thousand fishermen and women are making port in Washington, D.C. today to rally against the best hope for the future of fishing. They don’t see it that way, of course, but a look at the evidence leaves no other conclusion.

The simple truth is that American waters have been overfished for years. When boats take out more fish than nature can replace, fish populations shrink. If fishing efforts doesn’t decrease to match the smaller fish population, the resulting overfishing creates a vicious cycle—each year’s catch takes a bigger and bigger percentage of the remaining fish, until finally there are so few fish that the entire fishery, and the jobs depending upon fishing, disappear. Unfortunately, we have reached that point of collapse with many of our northeast fisheries, like winter flounder, which is below 10 percent of the targeted level; and …

Feb. 23, 2010 by Matthew Freeman
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The Obama Administration struck a blow for transparency last week with the launch of an online dashboard allowing users to keep track of what the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is working on. Good for OIRA for making such information so readily available. CPR plans to put it to good use. 

This month we began an initiative of our own, CPR’s Eye on OIRA project. As the name suggests, we plan to keep careful tabs on what OIRA’s doing, what regs it has before it, how long they’ve been there, which lobbyists are meeting with which OIRA staff, whether OIRA is sticking to its deadlines, and what the end result of OIRA’s involvement turns out to be. The hard truth is that, even in the Obama Administration, OIRA is where industry focuses its efforts to weaken needed regulations. OIRA seems …

Feb. 22, 2010 by Ben Somberg
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Representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak have released a batch of documents this afternoon on the day before their committee hearing on the Toyota debacle. Their focus is largely on the issue of the possible role of electronic failures as a cause of sudden unintended acceleration cases. They criticized Toyota's response to the reports of electronic problems, and in their letter to transportaiton secretary Ray LaHood, say:

Our preliminary review of the documents and the information learned from the meetings with NHTSA officials raises two significant concerns. First, NHTSA appears to lack the expertise needed to evaluate defects in vehicle electronic controls. ... Second, NHTSA's response to complaints of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles appears to have been seriously deficient.

 

Feb. 22, 2010 by Rena Steinzor
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Saturday’s Washington Post crystallized a trend of reporting in recent days showing that neither misaligned floor mats nor defective pedals are to blame for all acceleration problems in Toyota cars, at least not in the 2005 model Camry. The car, which has neither piece of offending equipment, does have electronic acceleration controls that are beginning to emerge as a potential cause of the problem. If those computerized systems are at the heart of even a small universe of Toyota’s problems, as long-time auto safety expert Clarence Ditlow told the Post, the problem should raise “a huge red flag.”

Automobile manufacturers have been working for several years to perfect electronic controls in their cars because those systems are much lighter and therefore are important in the effort to improve fuel economy by giving engines less weight to drag around. But you can scour the public record …

Feb. 22, 2010 by Shana Campbell Jones
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Ten years ago, after NHTSA received reports of numerous deaths and injuries linked to Firestone tires and Ford Explorers, Congress passed the TREAD Act, bolstering the authority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to identify possible defects in vehicles and tires by collecting information (“early warning data”) from auto and tire manufacturers. The law requires disclosure of data about incidents involving deaths or injuries, injury and property damage claims (including lawsuits), consumer complaints, warranty claims, field reports (problems reported from dealers, for example), and production data. Ten years later, the Toyota scandal is here, with lives lost. NHTSA is blamed for failing to connect the dots, and Toyota is criticized for a “culture of secrecy.”

What happened? How could a law designed to improve access to early warning signs of trouble apparently fail so spectacularly? The story is complicated and still emerging, but we will …

Feb. 19, 2010 by Daniel Farber
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Cross-posted from Legal Planet.

The Council on Environmental Quality has issued a draft guidance to agencies on treatment of greenhouse gases.  The key point is that emissions exceeding 25,000 tons per year of CO2 will be considered a “significant environmental impact” and require preparation of an environmental impact statement.

Overall, of course, this is a huge step forward. One point that does deserve further attention is the discussion of land use. On a fairly quick read, I’m not clear on the scope or effect of the draft’s discussion of this issue.

1. Scope of the exclusion. The drafts says: “Land management techniques, including changes in land use or land management strategies, lack any established Federal protocol for assessing their effect on atmospheric carbon release and sequestration at a landscape scale. Therefore, at this time, CEQ seeks public comment on this issue but has not …

Feb. 19, 2010 by Holly Doremus
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Cross-posted from Legal Planet.

The past couple of weeks have been crazier than usual on the Bay-Delta. The pumps were first ramped up and then ramped down. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pandered to the irrigation crowd (or at least a part of it) by proposing to ease endangered species protections in the Delta. And the fall-run chinook salmon population, which supports the commercial fishery, crashed.

First, the pumps. Recall that last fall Judge Oliver Wanger ruled that the Bureau of Reclamation violated NEPA by implementing the 2008 smelt biological opinion without first undertaking environmental analysis. I think that’s incorrect as a matter of law; it can’t be a violation of NEPA to reduce pumping for conservation purposes, but not a violation to gradually ramp up pumping over the decades that the CVP and SWP have been operating. NEPA analysis should happen, but it should happen …

Feb. 18, 2010 by Ben Somberg
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Just to give you an idea of the scope of the situation in Tennessee: More than 3 million cubic yards of coal ash were released into the waterways in the Kingston coal ash disaster in late 2008. This week comes news from cleanup officials that the removal of that waste is 70 percent complete. The EPA's PowerPoint shows that removal of the coal ash from the river is slightly ahead of forecast (slide 16).

So, just a half million cubic yards plus to go. Oh, but don't forget, says the Tennessean:

TVA plans to remove the more than 2 million cubic yards that lie just west of the river in a second phase that could take three years. The total cost of the cleanup effort could reach $1.2 billion.

Officials managing the cleanup can be forgiven for their enthusiasm at the progress to date …

CPR HOMEPAGE
More on CPR's Work & Scholars.
Feb. 26, 2010

Eye on OIRA: King Coal

Feb. 25, 2010

Eye on OIRA: Meddling with IRIS Again, Now on Arsenic

Feb. 24, 2010

Saving Our Fisheries

Feb. 23, 2010

CPR Eye on OIRA: Transparency and Scrutiny for OIRA

Feb. 22, 2010

The Toyota Fiasco: Where Were the Regulators?

Feb. 22, 2010

Congress Says Ask, but Toyota and Fellow Automakers Say Don't Tell: The Story of NHTSA and Industry Secrecy

Feb. 22, 2010

Waxman and Stupak Release Documents on Eve of Toyota / NHTSA Hearing