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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

Silent Epidemic of Workplace Chemical Exposures Rages on; New Worker Right-to-Know Database Maps All OSHA Health Inspection Readings

By Kirsten Stade - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, May 28, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC — Workplace chemical exposures are the nation’s eighth leading cause of death but the U.S. lacks any strategy for preventing the more than 40,000 premature deaths each year, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Today the group unveiled a Worker Right-to-Know website displaying 30 years of Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) chemical exposure readings from inspections back to 1984 so workers can see what substances they encountered and to help guide OSHA in improving safeguards for worker health.

Occupational exposures kill malignantly, from cancer, neurological breakdown, cardiopulmonary disease, and other chronic maladies. While this toll claims the lives of more than 10 times the workers killed in all on-the-job accidents combined, OSHA spends in excess of 90% of its budget on safety issues.

“More Americans die each year from workplace chemical exposure than from all highway accidents, yet we have no national effort to stem this silent occupational epidemic,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that allowed chemical exposure on-the-job is roughly 1000 times higher than in the general ambient environment. “In the U.S., environmental protection stops at the factory door.”

The new PEER database allows comprehensive workplace exposure data to be searched by year, by state, by establishment type and by substances detected. Individual inspection data may also be viewed. It also provides a geospatial display of all OSHA workplace monitoring sampling results. PEER hopes the readings will give workers and their doctors clues about the origins of otherwise mysterious illnesses.

These occupational risks may be on the rise as thousands of new chemicals are introduced in U.S. workplaces each year. Yet OSHA figures show a slow decline in health sampling. At its current rate of health inspections, it would take OSHA nearly 600 years to sample chemical exposure at half the nation’s industrial facilities that handle hazardous substances.

On a policy level, PEER is asking responsible agencies to come to grips with the problem by calling for –

  • OSHA to start using its own air sampling data to pinpoint where health inspections are most needed and to increase the number of such inspections; and
  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to conduct an updated national survey of occupational exposures, a survey it last did thirty-five years ago.

“Reversing this long lethal trend requires a national commitment to ‘green’ the American workplace,” added Ruch. “Above all, OSHA needs to rediscover its ‘H’ by taking affirmative steps to sharply reduce the slow poisoning of American workers.”

Jersey Open Space Measure Cannibalizes Parks & Eco-Programs: Zeros Out Park Maintenance Money and Forces Layoffs in Waste & Water Programs

By Kirsten Stade - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, October 6, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Trenton — A November ballot measure would amend the New Jersey constitution to siphon $10 billion out of park facilities maintenance as well as toxic site cleanup and state water infrastructure over the next 30 years solely to finance real estate purchases for open space. Billed as a “green” proposition, it would devastate bread and butter environmental programs while lining the pockets of some key proponents, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

With little debate about the impacts of the diversion of funds, the New Jersey Legislature placed a proposed constitutional amendment, the Open Space Preservation Funding Amendment, Public Question No. 2 on the November 4, 2014 ballot. It would direct a portion of corporate business tax revenues to open space, farmland and historic preservation from 2016 to 2045. To pay for that reallocation it would end the current dedication of corporate business tax revenues to environmental programs. Specifically it would:

  • Strip State Parks & Historic Sites of their current ability to fund capital projects, such as building or repairing restrooms, roads, bridges and other projects. Dedicated funding would fall from $32 million per year to zero. There is currently a $400 million backlog of repairs, new construction and improvements to existing facilities in state parks and historic sites;
  • Cut funding for state water resources programs and projects by two thirds, from $15 million a year currently down to $5 million; and
  • Slash hazardous waste cleanup programs by more than half, from the current $53 million a year to $25 million.

“This is utterly irresponsible eco-policy cynically masquerading as an investment in our future,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, pointing out that it will likely trigger layoffs of state Department of Environmental Protection staff working in both waste and water programs. “Green Acres and open space preservation are good ideas but not to the exclusion of everything else.”

The measure is touted as a rebuke to the Christie administration which has allowed open space funds to run dry. This retaliatory diversion of funds locked into the state constitution smacks of overkill, however.

Ironically, after new open spaces are purchased they are usually handed over to State Parks to maintain, creating an ever-growing unfunded backlog. Adding insult to injury, some of the new open space funding would support “Stewardship” schemes that include commercial logging of state lands. In addition, a portion of funds may be used for salaries and expenses of groups that arrange open space purchases.

“This measure subsidizes a galling amount of self-dealing real estate deals” added Wolfe, noting that supporters label themselves the “Keep It Green Coalition.” “Some Keep It Green members are also focused on the green in their wallets.”

JUSTICE PUSHES WHISTLEBLOWER BOUNTIES AS EPA ABANDONS THEM - Declining EPA Prosecutions Reflect Low Priority for Corporate Pollution vs. Fraud

By Kirsten Stade - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, September 24, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC —As federal prosecutors promote substantial financial rewards for white collar crime whistleblowers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cashiered its modest witness bounty program long ago, according to records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This may help explain the stagnancy of EPA’s anti-pollution criminal enforcement program.

In a September 17, 2014 speech at the New York University Law School, Attorney General Eric Holder advocated increasing the size of whistleblower awards under white collar crime bounty laws, saying it “could significantly improve the Justice Department’s ability to gather evidence of wrongdoing while complex financial crimes are still in progress – making it easier to complete investigations and to stop misconduct before it becomes so widespread that it foments the next crisis.”

By contrast, EPA has no interest in whistleblower bounties. In 1990, Congress authorized EPA to pay “an award, not to exceed $10,000, to any person who furnishes information or services which lead to a criminal conviction or a judicial or administrative civil penalty for any violation” of the Clean Air Act. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from PEER about how this bounty authority had been utilized, the agency conceded that this provision had become a dead letter. EPA could find only one responsive document, a 1996 internal manual provision, because –

“Nearly all the records you requested were destroyed in 2012 because the retention schedule for those records had been met (10 years retention time).”

“The Justice Department now emphasizes the importance of whistleblowers to effective enforcement against corporate criminality while EPA remains clueless,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Corporate pollution violations are just as much a white collar crime as securities fraud.”

Reflecting persistent complaints about shortages of agents, lack of focus and low priority on complex pollution cases from within EPA’s own Criminal Investigation Division (CID), PEER points out that –

  • Criminal cases generated by EPA have been in overall decline over the last decade, with more than half of all its criminal referrals rejected for prosecution. During the first three-quarters of FY 2014, EPA generated only 207 new cases, putting it on track for the lowest number since 1992;
  • Despite policies requiring timely enforcement, EPA allows major wastewater dischargers to violate their permits for years without even a citation; and
  • EPA’s new five-year Strategic Plan deemphasizes traditional enforcement in favor of industry self-reporting of emissions and discharges.

“Agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission actively seek to verify corporate filings but when it comes to the environment EPA has no means for, or apparent interest in, checking whether industry pollution self-reporting is accurate,” added Ruch. “EPA hands out citizen awards for all sorts of volunteerism but not for helping catch polluters.”

U.S. INDUSTRIAL SAFETY LAGS ALARMINGLY BEHIND DEVELOPED WORLD: U.S. Industrial Loss Burden 3 Times European Union and Gap Is Growing

Press Release - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), July 9, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC — America’s industrial infrastructure is substantially more susceptible to catastrophic failure than those in other industrialized countries, according to reports posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In certain key sectors, such as petrochemicals, aging U.S. refineries are become more dangerous with each passing month.

The combined losses from the fires, explosions and spills regularly plaguing U.S. chemical plants takes a proportionately greater toll than in the rest of the world. For example, the reinsurance giant, Swiss Re, concludes that the sum of all reinsurance losses (the “loss burden”) in refining, petrochemical processing and gas processing industry in the U.S. is approximately three times that of the comparably sized sector in the European Union (EU), with the rest of the world similar to the EU cluster.

Beyond economic losses, the toll on American workers is also higher. A study entitled “Occupational Fatality Risks in the United States and the United Kingdom” published earlier this year in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found the fatality rate of U.S. workers approximately three times that of workers in the U.K. American worker deaths from chemical exposure were more than 10 times higher than their U.K. counterparts; death by fire nearly 5 times and by explosion nearly 4 times as likely.

Rather than improving, some key U.S. industrial sectors are declining.

Why U.S. is Not Embracing Inherently Safer Chemical Plants: Chevron Richmond Refinery Explosion Ignored in GOP Red Herring Oversight

Contact: Kirsten Stade - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Jun 25, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Washington, DC — Republican lawmakers are using phony whistleblower claims to serve a corporate agenda of blocking critical steps to prevent future chemical plant explosions, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nearly two years after a massive oil refinery fire sickened 15,000 California residents, the official federal safety report urging adoption of inherently safer technologies still languishes due to both internal and external opposition.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents in fixed facilities. It does not issue fines or citations, but makes recommendations to plants, regulatory agencies, industry organizations and labor. In a House hearing last week, Government Reform & Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa released an 84-page staff report making no mention of a critical February 10, 2014 memo from CSB investigative staff defending their Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso and decrying delay of their report on the Chevron refinery.

In August 2012, Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California sprung a leak in a steel pipeline which gasified into a plume and then ignited, eventually creating a chemical cloud that forced 15,000 residents in the San Francisco Bay Area to seek medical care. The leak in the steel piping was caused by sulfidation corrosion, in which the sulfur in the petroleum eats away at the steel. There had been a similar leak at the Chevron refinery just the week prior. Chevron had four such leaks in its other refineries that year.

After reviewing the Chevron Richmond disaster, CSB issued a draft staff report calling for a preventive rather than reactive approach to chemical plant disasters. The draft report urged adoption of inherently safer design and also urged putting the onus on facility operators to choose materials and technologies that prevent foreseeable flaws. This approach is used in the U.K., Australia and Norway but not in the U.S.

Yet when the CSB convened this January, two members of the board opposed the Chair’s attempt to adopt the draft report urging inherently safer design. As a result, the Chevron report remains in limbo.

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