Common sense tells you don’t put a hazardous chemical storage facility on the banks of a river, a little more than a mile upstream from a drinking water intake that serves more than 300,000 people downstream. So should the law.
But beyond basic common sense, state and federal environmental and safety and health rules should be in place to prevent disasters such as the recent West Virginia chemical spill that poisoned the drinking water of families downstream from a largely unregulated and uninspected toxic chemical facility on the banks of the Elk River.
Not only was Freedom Industries allowed to operate the facility, which stored millions of gallons of various so-called “specialty chemicals” in aging tanks along the river banks, it had not been inspected by state or federal authorities since 2001, according to the Associated Press. When the leak occurred it was neighbors, not the company, who alerted officials.
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection officials have said that their inspectors investigated the situation at Freedom on Jan. 9—not because of an alert from the company, but after neighbors complained of an annoying chemical odor resembling that of licorice.
The chemical industry and others in West Virginia have a long and successful history of fighting environmental and health and safety rules. But as the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards points out, the West Virginia water disaster is:
The latest in a series of environmental and safety disasters related to shortcomings in federal and state oversight that have often been driven by vociferous industry-funded anti-regulatory campaigns….The public pays the price when the regulatory agencies don’t have the legal tools and funding to do their jobs.
AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario says, “This latest disaster has eerie echoes of the West Texas fertilizer explosion in March 2013—in both cases regulation of the toxic chemicals involved were lacking and there had been no oversight or inspections of the facilities.”
In Charleston, citizens have had their lives upended for days, but thankfully there has been no loss of life. In West, Texas, the damage was more devastating and long lasting with 15 emergency responders killed and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed.
She said the disasters point out the urgent need for stronger protections and greater oversight by state and federal authorities.
This will only happen if citizens and workers come together and demand that their government take action to ensure safe water, clean air and safe workplaces for all.
Last week, we gave you a dozen examples of the vital work that locked-out federal employees are being prevented from doing, thanks to the irresponsible House Republican government shutdown now in its second week. Republican House leaders are still refusing to do the right thing and allow a vote on funding and reopening the government.
Here’s a look at a few more of the jobs that shut-down workers—or those still on the job but not getting paid—perform and some of the key government services we all count on that are idled.
Every day, tens of millions of Americans are in the air, on the rails and roads and on buses and subways expecting safe travel, but likely giving little thought to the federal workers whose job it is to get them safely from point A to point B.
The Federal Aviation Administration has furloughed 3,000 aviation safety inspectors. The inspectors check to make sure airlines are maintaining their planes safely, conduct inspections at airports of planes and pilots and visit domestic and foreign repair stations where airlines send planes for major overhauls, among other safety jobs. Other aviation experts are on the job but without pay.
On Tuesday evening at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., aviation specialists from the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) and from unions of the Connecticut AFL-CIO staged an informational picket to alert the flying public about the possible safety issues because of the Republican government. Says PASS President Mike Perrone:
Sidelining aviation safety inspectors, who are crucial employees, for even a day is unacceptable and exposes the aviation system to unnecessary risk… Congress must immediately work to end the shutdown and put an end to undermining the critical work these inspectors perform.
Members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) are in the towers and control centers still guiding you safely home but are doing so without pay. Says NATCA President Paul Rinaldi:
The uncertainty created by this shutdown is only adding to an already stressful work environment. Promises of back pay amount to nothing more than IOU’s while bills pile up and frustration mounts
Because of the irresponsible shutdown that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) engineered, nearly all investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board have been locked out of their jobs and are unable to search for causes of several recent fatal accidents, including a Tennessee bus crash that left eight people dead and 14 more injured, a plane crash that killed four in Santa Monica, Calif., and an explosion in a Washington, D.C., Metro tunnel near one of the line’s busiest stations that killed one worker and seriously injured two others.
The House Republican shutdown has put workers at risk, too.
At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, where 90% of its inspection force has been locked out, routine and targeted inspections have ground to a halt along with most workplace injury and fatality investigations. Safety experts warn that construction workers could be at the biggest risk, but workers in other high hazard industries such as chemical and steel could also see dangers increase.
After furloughing 1,400 employees, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been reduced to conducting only targeted inspections at high hazard mines. The agency has been forced to forgo the required quarterly complete inspection of every underground mine. Last week, three coal miners were killed on the job in separate incidents on consecutive days. It was the first time since 2002 there were coal mine fatalities three days in a row.
While the deaths occurred at nonunion mines, Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts said that because of the shutdown, “The government’s watchdog isn’t watching.”
The circumstances surrounding each of these fatalities are different, and I do not want to draw immediate conclusions as to their causes based on incomplete evidence at this time. But it is extremely troubling that within a week after the federal government shutdown caused the normal system of mine safety inspection and enforcement to come to a halt, three miners are dead.
With lack of the regular and required inspections, he said, “Safety violations that would normally be caught and corrected as a result of those inspections are being missed.”
Even the smallest violations, when allowed to accumulate, can lead to dangerous conditions very quickly in a coal mine.
91% of seafood that Americans consume, which the United States imports, is not being inspected, currently. The same goes for the nearly 50% of fruits and 20% of vegetables consumed in the U.S. but imported from abroad.
In Seattle, licensed massage practitioners at Massage Bar Inc. voted to join Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 8. The 40 employees work at Sea-Tac Airport and the Washington Convention Center. Tom Tanouye, a 17-year employee, says:
We lack the basic benefits many health professionals enjoy, like access to affordable health care or paid sick leave. We hope to work in partnership with management to make improvements that will benefit employees and the company.
Earlier this year, Massage Bar employees at Sacramento International Airport voted to join OPEIU.
Workers at Reliable Home Health Care Services in Greensboro, N.C., joined Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 3607. The 37 certified nursing assistants and home health care workers won their union after they and Local 3607 President Chris Myrick negotiated a majority sign-up agreement with the employer.
More than two dozen diesel bus mechanics at the Delaware Transit Corp. voted to join Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2270. The workers reached out to the union after one of their longtime workers was unfairly fired.
Steve Rockafellow, IBEWregional organizing coordinator, says, “All of a sudden, the guys said, ‘Maybe we aren’t as secure as we thought we were.’”
Even though he had fierce competition from fellow Republicans Tom Corbett and Susana Martinez, this is a choice CREW had no trouble making:
In the past he’s employed illegal tactics and abused his power to round up votes, but Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) didn’t have to break a sweat to win this contest. For racking up a record that has veered from unethical conduct to staggering incompetence, CREW’s voters awarded Gov. Walker the title of Worst Governor in America.
Gov. Walker had made his name in 2011 by ramming through unprecedented restrictions on the collective bargaining of public workers, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg:
Gov. Walker also presided over illegal activity and wasteful spending at a public-private partnership that he and the state legislature created to promote economic development. Additionally, a long-running investigation into Gov. Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive and his 2010 gubernatorial campaign resulted in criminal charges against several of his aides. CREW cited these scandals and others in naming Gov. Walker to the second edition of its Worst Governors in America report.
“Scandal and embarrassment seem to follow Gov. Walker wherever he goes,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “Given his inability to competently handle the most basic responsibilities of his office and willingness to overstep his authority to help his donors, it’s no wonder CREW’s voters recognized him as a singularly terrible American governor.”
Currently, Scott Walker is under fire on multiple fronts. In June, Wisconsin was ranked 49th out of 50 in job creation by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Over the past few weeks, dozens have been arrested in the Wisconsin state capitol for the simple act of singing, under new protest restrictions Walker’s administration put in place. Just yesterday, Walker shocked many of his former political allies by suggesting expanding his union-busting Act 10 to include police officers and firefighters as well.
Nineteen Arizona fire fighters, 18 from an elite wildfire unit, were killed Sunday in an out-of-control blaze about 80 miles north of Phoenix. The members of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew team were dispatched to the front lines of the Yarnell Hill fire to establish a fire line to try to slow fire that reportedly had wind-driven flames as high as 20 feet.
Says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka:
Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the brave heroes we lost in Arizona. It is a terrible tragedy even for the heroes who willingly put their life on the line every day for our safety.
Fire Fighters (IAFF) President Harold Schaitberger said the 19—who averaged just 22 years of age—“made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the communities they serve.”
When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen and prayers for the fire fighters who continue to work side-by-side in what are, by any measure, hellish conditions. At this time, the fire is now more than quadruple in size, as crews battle triple-digit heat and erratic winds in an effort to contain the blaze.
Arizona state forestry spokesman Art Morrison told CNN that “hotshot crews” are the firefighters “who actually go in and dig the fire line, cut the brush to make a fuel break. And so they would be as close to the fire as they felt they safely could.”
According to the Arizona Republic, the 19 firefighters were found in an area that also had 19 fire shelters deployed. Some of the firefighters were inside their shelters, which are typically used as a last resort to withstand the fire if it overtakes them. Some of the crew members were found outside the shelters.
Schaitberger said an investigation is underway to determine how the tragedy occurred and “ what we do know is that it was an unprecedented weather event that resulted in ‘a wind blowout’ in all directions.”
As we mourn for those who have given their lives, we pray for the safety of hundreds more who are battling fires in the face in one of the worst heat waves in memory.
“We are devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you will ever meet,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said.
President Obama said in a statement Sunday:
They were heroes—highly skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.
Sunday was the deadliest day for firefighters since the 9/11 attacks. It also was the deadliest wildfire since the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles killed 25 firefighters.
The sun was shining in Salem, Oregon for the May 1st rally for workers’ and immigrants’ rights, where a diverse and lively crowd of over three thousand gathered and cheered. Chants of “Si Se Puede” echoed off the capital building onto a sea of families, students, and activists waving American and rainbow flags, as well as handmade signs reading “Keep Families Together” and thank you’s to the governor.
Governor John Kitzhaber joined the May Day March to sign into law Senate Bill 833, the Safe Roads Act, a bill that provides access to driver’s licenses to all Oregon workers, including immigrants. This bill ensures that everyone in Oregon has the ability to drive themselves to work, school and everywhere else our busy lives take us, legally and safely. The Governor signed the bill into law on the steps of the capitol, a historic first, cheered on by many voices, including the Oregon AFL-CIO, CAUSA, PCUN, labor unions, faith leaders, law enforcement, and Working America.
Governor Kitzhaber said:
Today I signed into law a bill that not only improves our public safety, but helps Oregonians integrate into and contribute to our society and economy…
This bill is motivated by a larger vision – one where all Oregonians deserve and get their shot at the American dream…
Where we are creating secure jobs with upward income mobility, and supporting safe, secure communities where people have a sense of common purpose and commitment to one another….
We are celebrating the promise of a better future, for every Oregonian. And we are celebrating that our democracy is made stronger – in fact, our democracy is made possible – because we share that belief in the American Dream and are working together to achieve it.
As of January 1, 2014, tens of thousands of immigrants – and many elderly and homeless people – who are unable to show the correct documentation living in Oregon will be eligible to obtain a four year driver’s license.
In the weeks before the rally, Working America organizers talked to nearly 1,300 community members about this important bill, and many wrote letters to their representatives to express their support for safety and equality.
Member Alex C. in Portland wrote, “This is a common sense approach to the real life needs of people in our state, ALL of the residents and employees of our great state.”
Lisa A. in Hillsboro gave a parent’s perspective. “As a mother, it’s important to me to know that all drivers on the road are able to obtain and have insurance, to help keep my children and our community as a whole safe,” she wrote.
Our members and our allies continue to stand together to continue the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, and we thank our representatives who heard our voices loud and clear and voted yes on the Safe Roads Act. ¡Si Se Puede!
There are signs of life in the economy, and we’re hoping for a good jobs report at the end of the week—but the recovery from the devastating Great Recession is still fragile, with a number of dangers that could tip us backwards. The most irritating threat to the recovery, however, is a self-inflicted wound: the shredding of public sector jobs as austerity fever hits state budgets.
In education, in public safety and in other vital services, states are kicking people off the job rolls—even as, in many cases, they’re cutting taxes for corporations. When hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters and other public workers lose their jobs, it’s just like when anyone else loses a job: they end up competing in the job market for a smaller number of openings, they draw on unemployment insurance, they have a harder time making mortgage payments and feeding their families, and they have less money to spend to support businesses in their community. What’s more, their neighbors are getting a lower level of public service. It’s lose-lose. Newly-elected state legislators on an ideological quest to shrink the services states provide are playing their games at the expense of actual people’s actual paychecks.
And as David Dayen notes, these cuts aren’t just short-term: “when you scale back public education and investment, the practical effect of those job losses, that has far-reaching effects into the future.”
Of course, President Obama’s American Jobs Act could have helped in this regard—it would have given states money to invest in keeping teachers and public safety employees on the payroll. But it was repeatedly filibustered by Republicans in the Senate who are about as interested in how the economy works for real people as their colleagues in state capitols are.
That includes Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who said “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
That includes new Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who said “We cannot afford to be bailing out local governments.”
That includes Senators Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe, who are frequently deemed “moderate” by the press.
To the American public, this is not a controversial bill. A CNN poll found that 75 percent are in favor of the policy that helps prevent layoffs in police departments and firehouses by charging a small surcharge on adjusted gross incomes exceeding $1 million.
But instead of explaining their actions of voting against an overwhelmingly popular bill that would have incredible public benefit, Republicans and their allies had a little sideshow about the Vice President saying crime rates are up, specifically that rates of rape are up. Senator John Barasso (R-WY) said these comments reflected White House “fear tactics” and “desperation,” and right wing reporter Jason Mattera accosted the Vice President after a press conference to ask him if he thought the comments were “appropriate.”
“I think he is concretely worried that with fewer police on the beat crime will go up,” O’Neill told The Daily Caller. “I think he is imagining the lives of real people. That is not a device — that is an actual ability to know what everyday people go through.”
I don’t think anyone, let alone Biden, should have to apologize for pointing out the consequences of the Republicans political games. They push 30 year old economic theories, they talk about how this will hurt President Obama politically, but then to turn around and react with faux outrage when someone talks about how their irresponsible votes will affect actual Americans?
As the VP said, “This is about priorities. Watch your senator. Watch him or her choose.” Well, they’ve chosen. And we saw. Republicans voted for the ability of about 700 millionaires to breathe a little easier, and ignored the fact that crime rates, including murder, rape, and burglary, are ticking upwards. Those are their priorities.
With a minority of Senators having blocked even an attempt at debate on the American Jobs Act, Senate leaders are moving individual provisions as stand-alone bills this week. And first up is a bill to put hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters and other employees back to work.
In a packed Senate conference room yesterday, a few hundred firefighters, nurses, teachers, police officers and their allies were joined by Vice President Joe Biden and legislative leaders to push for the bill. It’s a $35 billion measure that would send money to the states to help them save jobs that are right now disappearing thanks to short-sighted budget cuts. Sen. Harry Reid plans to put the bill up for a vote this week.
As Biden noted at yesterday’s rally, this isn’t a radical, ideological proposition. It’s common sense. It gives people paychecks and helps communities keep the services and protections they can’t afford to lose. “It’s not only about your needs, it’s about the public needs,” Biden told the enthusiastic crowd. “This is not very complicated…real people will get real relief, right now.”
The bill is completely paid for by a small 0.5% surtax on money earned after the first $1 million dollars. To put that in basic math, if a wealthy person has $1,000,010 in taxable income, the surcharge would raise their taxes by a nickel. “Everything is about priorities,” Biden aptly noted, saying that Senators could save nearly 400,000 jobs—or they could save millionaires a little bit on their tax bill. “This is so simple. Watch your senator. Watch him or her choose.”
Among those who spoke at yesterday’s rally were Rodney Barton, a retired Maryland police officer, and Cherine Akbari, a teacher from Oakland Park, Florida who got her pink slip on Teacher Appreciation Day. “I’m one of 1,400 teachers laid off in my district,” said Akbari. “I’m worried about losing my home, which I just bought thinking I could have a career in education. I’m worried for myself but I’m even more worried for my students.”
These layoffs hit communities in two ways. First, they obviously reduce cities and towns’ ability to provide for public safety and good education, which hurts everything from property values to the future earnings prospects of students. Second, it has the same economic impact as any other layoff: depriving local businesses of customers and throwing more and more people into competition for a too-small number of job openings.
So what is it going to be, U.S. Senators? Go with the overwhelming public consensus and put people like Cherine back to work, or keep taxes on millionaires from inching up above their historic lows? It’s a sign of a deeply dysfunctional debate in Washington that this would be anything like a hard choice.
In addition to the bill to fund teachers and public safety workers, the Obama administration is also proposing as a stand-alone bill a program to help businesses hire veterans, another portion of the American Jobs Act.
Last week, Pinellas County, on Florida’s west coast, voted to stop adding fluoride to its public water supply after starting the program seven years ago. The county joins about 200 jurisdictions from Georgia to Alaska that have chosen to end the practice in the last four years, motivated both by tight budgets and by skepticism about its benefits.
Public health advocates don’t agree:
But the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the communities that stop adding fluoride to the water supply are misguided. The government continues to recommend the practice, which began in the 1940’s and has had its share of recent successes, including San Diego’s move to fluoridate water this year after a long delay. Some 72 percent of the population in the country drinks water with added fluoride.
Keeping fluoride in water is especially important today because many people cannot afford dental care, public officials say.
Fluoridated water has always been the subject of controversy. The John Birch Society insisted that fluoride in the water was a Communist plot. (For the record, there were no Communists in the fluoridated Massachusetts town in which I grew up.)
What is truly unfortunate is that these decisions aren’t always being made by rational, well informed people:
But Kenneth T. Welch, a Pinellas County commissioner who voted to continue adding fluoride to the water, said he was stunned by the commission’s decision, saying it was pushed by Tea Party supporters. He called for another vote on Tuesday but the outcome was the same. Fluoridation will end in the affected areas of the county by Dec. 31. The county expects to save $205,000 annually from halting fluoride use.
“Political rhetoric won out over science and the best advice of our medical and dental community,” Mr. Welch said.
This will have the greatest impact on the folks who are least likely to be able to afford dental care. Another victory for the anti-science crowd, but once again, hurting the most vulnerable.