Regulatory Agencies Fail

Why do we have ongoing problems with mines, oil spills, and problems with nuclear power plants? The sad, simple truth is that US regulatory agencies are failing us. From the NY Times:

Federal regulators warned offshore rig operators more than a decade ago that they needed to install backup systems to control the giant undersea valves known as blowout preventers, used to cut off the flow of oil from a well in an emergency.

The warnings were repeated in 2004 and 2009. Yet the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged both with regulating the oil industry and collecting royalties from it, never took steps to address the issue comprehensively, relying instead on industry assurances that it was on top of the problem, a review of documents shows.

Relying on the oil industry to police itself is akin to relying on your five year old to voluntarily keep his hand out of the cookie jar.

Far from being reliable BP fought safety measures at every opportunity:

In a letter sent last year to the Department of the Interior, BP objected to what it called “extensive, prescriptive regulations” proposed in new rules to toughen safety standards. “We believe industry’s current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs…continue to be very successful.”

Mine safety regulations used to be tougher.

Before every shift worked in an underground coal mine, coal operators are supposed to check for safety problems. Violations are to be marked with a “danger” sign. No one is supposed to go to work until the violations are fixed.

At least that’s what federal mine safety law has said since 1969, when Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

But since 1992, that’s not what the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has required. That year, the first Bush administration weakened MSHA regulations, requiring mine safety checks to look for violations only if they posed an immediate hazard to miners.

A Congressional hearing on the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine will be held later this month:

The U.S. House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing this month in Beckley, W.Va., to examine the April 5 explosion at Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29.

The committee, led by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., will hear testimony from family members of the miners who died in the blast, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. The hearing is scheduled for May 24 at 9 a.m. at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse in Beckley, which is about an hour east of the mine in Montcoal.

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the explosion last month in Washington, focusing on possible changes to mine safety laws and enforcement by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is charged with enforcing regulations. Here’s a particularly grim commentary:

A top federal mine safety official said Tuesday that existing laws and regulations have not been properly enforced but pledged that his agency will now use all its powers after the West Virginia mine disaster that killed 29 people.

Joe Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, told a Senate committee that the Mine Safety and Health Administration will start using its power to immediately shut down mines engaging in unsafe behavior.
Main said the powers have existed for decades but were never used.

How many workers have died as a result?

The aging Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, VT has been in the news over the last few months because of a radioactive tritium leak. Entergy, the owner of the plant first denied there were underground pipes at the plant. From the Times Argus:

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, told reporters at the Statehouse Friday that this week’s revelation that the facility does indeed have underground pipes containing radioactive tritium – a fact Yankee officials earlier denied – “threatens the level of trust that Vermonters have in Entergy to provide accurate information about anything.”

“The representations made by Entergy were clearly wrong,” Smith said. “They told us that there was no radioactive material flowing through those pipes … that was untrue.”

Officials from Entergy Nuclear Vermont, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, told state and legislative officials on a number of occasions that those pipes did not carry irradiated water. That includes statements made by Entergy officials under oath to the Vermont Public Service Board.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) planned a private meeting with VT Yankee/Entergy officials, regarding NRC oversight of the plant. The private meeting didn’t sit well with folks in VT and NH. NH has 5 communities in the 10 mile evacuation zone of the plant.

Thanks to the intervention of VT and NH legislators a public meeting was held:

Residents and local officials told the NRC during the evening session that the NRC was ineffective because there were few — if any — regulations to hold nuclear companies accountable.

Paul Blanch of West Hartford, Conn., a nuclear consultant and former industry whistleblower, said nuclear companies were taking advantage of the situation.

“Regulations are nonexistent or never enforced,” said Blanch, who said that Vermont Yankee could have discharged “10,000 times” the tritium that it did and still not violate any NRC regulations.

People weren’t impressed with the NRC as a regulatory agency, and they have every reason to feel that way. From Beyond Nuclear:

A new report released today by Beyond Nuclear – Leak First, Fix Later: Uncontrolled and Unmonitored Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants – looks at the epidemic of reactors leaking tritium into groundwater. The report finds that the federal regulator – the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission – is ignoring its oversight and enforcement responsibilities at the nation’s increasingly leaky, uninspected and unmaintained nuclear power plants. The report shows that despite agency efforts initiated in 1979 to prevent uncontrolled radioactive releases to groundwater, the NRC is capitulating to an industry decision to take almost three more years before announcing an action plan.

Regulatory agencies must be forced to do their jobs. Paying for the ounce of prevention is cheaper, better for the environment, and it saves lives. We must also pass the The Protecting America’s Workers Act.

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Short Takes

The number of unemployment claims has fallen slightly.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 11,000 to a seasonally adjusted 448,000 in the week ended April 24, the Labor Department said.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected claims to fall to 445,000 from the previously reported 456,000, which was modestly revised up to 459,000 in Thursday’s report.


Though initial claims have resumed their downward trend interrupted by the Easter holiday, analysts worry the pace is too slow and underscores the fragility of private hiring.

Despite all of the manufactured controversy over the census, the Census Bureau reports the rate of returned forms is the same as in 2000, about 72%.

Beginning Saturday, 600,000 enumerators will go door-to-door to find the up to 48 million households that failed to respond.

A reminder of why the census is important.

Two Miners Missing in Kentucky. There was a collapse in the Webster County Coal Dokiti Mine:

Records show inspectors from the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing have issued 31 orders to close sections of the mine or to shut down equipment because of safety violations since January 2009. Those records also show an additional 44 citations for safety violations that didn’t result in closure orders.

This is why The Protecting America’s Worker’s Act (pdf) is crucial.

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For “Uncle Bobby”

Six minutes is a little longer of a video than most of us watch all the way through. But on Workers Memorial Day, let’s take that long to hear the story of one man’s death, the unsafe workplace that led to it, and the grossly inadequate penalty the employer paid for his death.

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Workers Memorial Day

According to the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report,

Since 1970, when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, workplace safety and health conditions have improved. But too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death. In recent weeks and months there have been a series of workplace tragedies that have heightened concerns—the coal mine disaster at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, an explosion a few days earlier at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State that killed six workers, and the explosion at the Kleen Energy Plant in Connecticut in February that also claimed the
lives of six workers.

In 2008, 5,214 workers were killed on the job—an average of 14 workers every day—and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. More than 4.6 million work-related injuries were reported, but this number understates the problem. The true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater—about 9 to 14 million job injuries each year.

The risk of job fatalities and injuries varies widely from state to state, in part due to the mix of industries. Wyoming led the country with the highest fatality rate (11.6 per 100,000), followed by Alaska (9.9), Montana (8.3), North Dakota (7.8) and South Dakota (6.9). The lowest state fatality rate (1.0 per 100,000) was reported in New Hampshire, followed by Rhode Island (1.2), Connecticut (1.6), Massachusetts (2.1) and Maryland (2.1). This compares with a national fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2008.

The report is released for Workers Memorial Day:

Decades of struggle by workers and their unions have resulted in significant improvements in working conditions. But the toll of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths remains enormous. Each year, thousands of workers are killed and millions more are injured or diseased because of their jobs. The unions of the AFL-CIO remember these workers on April 28, Workers Memorial Day.

Workplace fatalities aren’t just sad accidents. They’re products of a system in which employers have little incentive to focus on safety.

When workers are killed on the job, the report notes that employers face “incredibly weak penalties.” The median penalty in 2009 was just $5,000 in fatality cases investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). In 2009, when an employer was cited for a serious safety violation, the average OSHA penalty was just $965.
In addition, the report says OSHA’s inspector workforce is “woefully inadequate,” with just 2,218 inspectors to monitor the 8 million workplaces that fall under OSHA’s jurisdictions.

This is why we need to update the Occupational Safety and Health Act with the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PDF).

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