North Carolina’s Coal Ash Spills: A Glimpse of the Future under OIRA’s Weak Option

by Rena Steinzor | February 20, 2014

Yesterday, we wrote about OIRA’s role in delaying and diluting the EPA’s long-awaited coal ash rule, in part by introducing and promoting a weak option that would rely on voluntary state implementation and citizen suits, instead of nationwide requirements and federal oversight, to protect the public from dangerous leaks and spills.

Anyone who thinks the states can be entrusted with regulating toxic coal ash need only take a passing glance at North Carolina’s track record—a virtual “how to” guide for regulatory dysfunction. Governor Pat McCrory himself worked at Duke Energy for 28 years, and Duke-connected sources donated over a million dollars to get him elected in 2012. Once in office, he appointed several former Duke employees to high-level posts, and the newly appointed head of the state’s environmental department saw himself as a “partner” to regulated industries rather than a cop on the beat. The department took no action even after Duke’s own test results showed that the ponds were polluting nearby groundwater.

Citizen suits fared no better. Even in the best circumstances, these lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming for organizations to bring, and unlike comprehensive regulations, they are sporadic in their coverage. But the situation in North Carolina was even worse: environmentalists filed three separate notices of intent to sue Duke in federal court over groundwater pollution, and each time the lawsuits were stymied by the ...

Mounting Coal Ash Spills Will Be OIRA’s Legacy

by Rena Steinzor | February 19, 2014
Two and a half weeks ago, a Duke Energy ash pond in North Carolina spilled up to 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water after a stormwater pipe underneath the pond broke. The spill coated the bottom of the Dan River for 70 miles with gray sludge—five feet thick in some places. Now, investigators have discovered a second pipe underneath the pond that appears to have been leaking contaminated water into the river for a ...

Executive Fiat or Business as Usual? Claims of Presidential Overreach are Just Politics

by Bill Funk | February 17, 2014
In his State of the Union Address President Obama announced that, while he intended to work with Congress to achieve various goals, he will act unilaterally, invoking his “executive authority,” pending congressional action.  There followed a laundry list of initiatives that he said he would take on his own.  Predictably, Republicans have railed against the President’s proposed actions, accusing him of subverting the rule of law.  It’s all just politics. First guilty party: President Obama.  For all his touted exercise ...

CPR Member Scholars file Comments on OSHA’s Silica Proposal

by Thomas McGarity | February 12, 2014
At long last, the comment period on OSHA’s silica proposal has closed and the next phase in this rule’s protracted timeline will commence.  In the four months since OSHA released the proposal, the agency has received hundreds of comments.  They run the gamut, from the expected support of unions and other advocates for working people, to the fear-mongering hyperbole of the major trade associations.  CPR Member Scholars Sid Shapiro and Martha McCluskey joined us in submitting our own comments to ...

CPR Scholars Weigh in on 'Secret Science Reform Act'

by Matthew Freeman | February 11, 2014
A group of eight CPR Member Scholars today submitted a letter to Reps. David Schweikert and Suzanne Bonamici, the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's Subcommittee on the Environment. The letter levels a series of powerful criticisms at Schweikert's proposed "Secret Science Reform Act," yet another in a series of bills from House Republicans aimed at gumming up efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to exercise authority granted it by Congress to ...

The Bay-Wide TMDL is None of Alaska’s Business

by Anne Havemann | February 07, 2014
Anchorage, Alaska is more than 4,000 miles away from the Chesapeake Bay, yet Alaska joined 20 other states on Monday in asking a federal appeals court to overturn the EPA-led plan to restore the Bay, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). While Alaska’s interest in the Bay-wide TMDL is murky, the history of the lawsuit is straightforward. In 2009, the Obama administration issued Executive Order 13,508, directing EPA to take a leadership role in cleaning up the Bay. ...

Chemical Industry takes Aim at Citizen Suits with 'Reform' Bill

by Sidney Shapiro | February 07, 2014
The recent chemical spill disaster in West Virginia has brought into sharp focus the weak measures we have in place for safeguarding people and the environment against exposures to harmful chemicals.  State and civil justice systems have helped to fill the resulting void by providing individuals who have suffered harmful exposures with an opportunity to hold accountable any people or corporations responsible for the chemical by seeking reasonable compensation for their injuries.  It’s often difficult to win these cases, and ...

EPA's Enforcement Retreat will Harm the Chesapeake

by Anne Havemann | February 04, 2014
Every day, we are presented with more evidence of the need to inspect for environmental violations and enforce the nation’s laws.  The evidence is stark in the Chesapeake Bay region where, in 2012 alone, just 17 large point sources reported illegal discharges of nitrogen totaling nearly 700,000 pounds.  These violations put the watershed states behind in their efforts to restore the estuary and meet the 2025 goals of the Bay pollution diet.  The problem cries out for stronger enforcement of ...

Two House Hearings, One Bad Theme

by Matt Shudtz | February 04, 2014
Today, separate House committees will hold hearings that address two federal agencies’ efforts to regulate toxic chemicals.  The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy will hold its fifth hearing on issues arising out of ongoing efforts to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Simultaneously, the House Education and Workforce Committee’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections will hold a hearing addressing, among other things, OSHA’s recent attempts to spur better protections for workers who face chemical ...

A Turning of the Tide? More Belief in Government, Less Blind Faith in Markets

by Sidney Shapiro | January 30, 2014
Suddenly politics in this country appears to have taken a turn toward democracy and away from markets. As we develop in a book just published by Oxford University Press, discussing economic inequality. Regulation of Wall Street proceeds apace after the investment banks and mortgage lenders sank the American economy with their recklessness as they now write multi-billion dollar checks for their malfeasance. If indeed the tide has turned, the country is emerging from a cycle deemphasizing government that dates back ...

US Chamber of Commerce: More of the Same

by Joseph Tomain | January 27, 2014
Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report entitled Energy Works for US: Solutions for America’s Energy Future.  The data and references in the report are largely accurate, as far as they go, and the report promotes energy efficiency, which is a welcome step.  Ultimately, though, the report is unreliable because it has too narrow a vision of the energy future.  It inaccurately characterizes government regulation and neglects the environmental consequences surrounding the production, use, consumption, and disposal of ...

The Obama legacy: will West Virginia toxic spill join the queue of episodes showing that “government”—and whatever it means to the President—broke on his watch?

by Rena Steinzor | January 22, 2014
As people across the country and around the world watched the tableau of 300,000 West Virginians give up their drinking, cooking and bath water for days on end because an untested toxic chemical was spilled by a company that was co-founded by a twice-convicted felon, the ever-present John Boehner (R-Ohio) had pungent advice for President Barack Obama.  “We have enough regulations on the books.  And what the administration ought to be doing is actually doing their jobs.  Why wasn't this ...

Has OIRA really improved the timeliness of its reviews? Nope, it just has a new scheme for delaying safeguards and defeating transparency

by James Goodwin | January 22, 2014
It’s time to put to bed an unfortunate myth that’s been floating around the last few weeks.  The myth goes something like this:  The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—the opaque bureau within the White House charged with approving agencies’ draft regulations before they can be released to the public—has succeeded in improving the timeliness of its reviews during the last few months.  OIRA has long been a roadblock to the successful implementation of critical safeguards, so if true, ...

Fixing Virginia’s toxic chemical problem

by Noah M Sachs | January 20, 2014
In the wake of the toxic chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia that contaminated the city’s water supply, citizens across the country are wondering if it could happen to them. Given gaps in our environmental and chemical regulation regime, the answer is a resounding yes.   For the past year, I’ve been investigating problems of chemical storage and contamination in Virginia, and this week, the University of Richmond School of Law released a new report authored by me and law student ...

The age of greed: Mitch McConnell goes to bat for Big Coal after West Virginia catastrophe

by Rena Steinzor | January 17, 2014
For the past week, 300,000 people in and around Charleston, West Virginia, have been unable to drink the water that came from their taps, because of the toxic byproduct of feeble regulation and non-existent enforcement. Thousands of gallons of a coal-cleaning agent seeped into the local water supply after it oozed out of an antiquated storage tank and then overflowed a surrounding containment area just a mile upriver from the local water plant. Significantly, inspectors had not visited the facility ...

Going dark on the farm: Farm Bill could cloak big ag in even more secrecy

by Anne Havemann | January 14, 2014
As congressional negotiators reconcile the House- and Senate-passed Farm Bills, they are considering two provisions that would cut off access to information about federally subsidized farm programs and threaten public health and safety. The Farm Bill will provide farmers with billions of dollars in federal subsidies, crop insurance, conservation payments, and other grants.  The vast majority of the farms that qualify for these federal dollars are incorporated businesses that turn a profit by working the land.  Yet, by conjuring up ...

The clean energy wager

by Joseph Tomain | January 08, 2014
In his 2013 book, The Bet, Yale historian Paul Sabin uses Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon as foils to explain today’s dysfunctional and polarized politics surrounding energy development and environmental protection. In 1980, Ehrlich and Simon bet each other on the price of five minerals (chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten.) Ehrlich, a neo-Malthusian, and father of Zero Population Growth, believed that thoughtless and unconstrained consumption of natural resources by an ever-expanding human population would literally doom the planet.  Ehrlich posited ...

Secrecy protects only laggards: why the FDA should disclose which drug companies volunteer for its “judicious use” policy for livestock antibiotics

by Lisa Heinzerling | January 06, 2014
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently recommitted itself to its lame proposal to address the profligate use of antibiotics in livestock by enlisting the voluntary participation of the drug companies that make the antibiotics.  Two documents issued last month reveal the details of the agency’s current plans.   The first is a final guidance document describing the FDA’s process for handling drug sponsors’ voluntary efforts to phase out “production uses” of antibiotics in animal feed and water and to bring ...

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