Eye on OIRA: King Coal

by Rena Steinzor | February 26, 2010

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 in the first wave of Obama appointments, she decided to become that official. Correctly identifying the problem of negligent disposal of 140 million tons of coal ash, a type of mining waste even more toxic than the slurry that assaulted ...

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

by Matt Shudtz | February 25, 2010
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 ...

Saving Our Fisheries

by Rebecca Bratspies | February 24, 2010
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 ...

CPR Eye on OIRA: Transparency and Scrutiny for OIRA

by Matthew Freeman | February 23, 2010
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 ...

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

by Ben Somberg | February 22, 2010
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 ...

The Toyota Fiasco: Where Were the Regulators?

by Rena Steinzor | February 22, 2010
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, ...

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

by Shana Campbell Jones | February 22, 2010
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 ...

White House Draft Guidance on Climate Change and Environmental Impact Statements -- A First Look

by Daniel Farber | February 19, 2010
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 Delta: Pumps, Politics, and (Fish) Populations

by Holly Doremus | February 19, 2010
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 ...

Tennessee Coal Ash Cleanup Update: Where On-Target Is Still Depressing News

by Ben Somberg | February 18, 2010
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 ...

EPA's Cooperative Approach on Coal Ash Nets "Action Plans" From Industry -- But Here's What EPA Could Really be Doing With Existing Authority

by James Goodwin | February 17, 2010
In 2008 alone, coal-fired power plants produced some 136 million tons of coal ash waste – dangerous stuff, because it contains arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and a host of other toxins that are a significant threat to basic human health. Ironically, coal ash has been growing as a problem in recent years in part because better pollution-control devices capture more toxic contaminants before they go up power plant smokestacks. Last year, around 55 percent of the stuff was piled up in ...

In OIRA Meeting on BPA, 13 of 19 Studies Presented Funded by Industry

by Ben Somberg | February 15, 2010
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel had its latest article on BPA this weekend, this time looking at the role of the December 22 meeting between the industry and OIRA. Writer Meg Kissinger contrasts the forceful EPA statements on BPA from last year with the lack of an EPA action plan on the chemical now. As for the documents presented to OIRA at the meeting, The Journal Sentinel reviewed the list and found 13 of the 19 papers and presentations cited were paid ...

Eye on OIRA: The 121st Day and Coal Ash Still Going to Pits in the Ground

by Rena Steinzor | February 12, 2010
Tomorrow will be the 120th day since the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) began its review of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) star-crossed proposal to declare coal ash that is not safely recycled to be a hazardous waste. The number is significant because it marks the end of OIRA’s allotted review period for the proposal, under the Executive Order that governs OIRA. The date will likely come and go without fanfare. By rights, OIRA ought to ...

Tackling the Issue of "Fraud" in Carbon Trading

by Victor Flatt | February 12, 2010
The concept of cap and trade took another hit recently with disclosures that hackers had been able to get into the accounts of several holders of carbon emissions allowances in Europe and steal some of the account balance. This, along with the continued snowstorm in Washington, D.C. seems to fill those opposing a federal comprehensive cap and trade plan with glee. While the issue of record setting snows in D.C. should be addressed with basic scientific education (trends and averages ...

EPA Chides Polluters for Downplaying Risk From Portland Harbor Superfund Site; Still, Must Honor Fishing Tribes' Rights

by Catherine O'Neill | February 11, 2010
In a welcome move, EPA recently took polluters to task for their attempt to downplay the risks to human health and the environment from the Portland Harbor superfund site along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon (h/t Oregonian for noting the EPA action). As part of the cleanup effort for the site, the polluters, known as the Lower Willamette Group (LWG), had agreed to conduct an assessment of the risks posed by the contaminants there. This risk assessment will serve ...

Eye on OIRA: Coal Ash Visits by Regulation Foes Up to 28; OIRA’s Open Door Policy Creates Double Standard for Special Interests, Flouting Obama Ethics Initiatives

by Rena Steinzor | February 10, 2010
According to recent statements from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) press office, Administrator Cass Sunstein and staff are adamantly committed to granting an audience with OIRA senior staff to anyone who asks to see them about anything, and most especially pending health and safety rules. So not only are special interests granted second, third, fourth, and fifth audiences with OIRA staff after far more qualified political appointees and technical experts at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency ...

New CPR Report Examines Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA

by Ben Somberg | February 09, 2010
CPR today releases the white paper Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA (press release). The report examines an Occupational Safety and Health Administration where Today its enforcement staff is stretched thin and the rulemaking staff struggle to produce health and safety standards that can withstand industry legal challenges. In short, OSHA is a picture of regulatory dysfunction. The new leadership of the agency has ... inherited a resource-starved agency operating under a statute that has been enfeebled by 30 ...

The Toyota Debacle and NHTSA's Role: What Congress Must Investigate

by Ben Somberg | February 09, 2010
In a letter today, CPR President Rena Steinzor and board member Sidney Shapiro recommend to Congress questions it should investigate to get to the bottom of the Toyota accelerator/recall matter that's all over the news. The letter focuses in particular on the role of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and examines the agency's shortcomings in achieving its mission to protect public safety. To be clear, the Toyota case is about much more than engineering failure. It is a ...

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