Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bush and Industry vs. The Rest Of Us

The greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism.
— Sir William Osler, Montreal Medical Journal 1902

There was at least one bit of good news recently with respect to George Bush’s unending (but soon to be ended) efforts to protect industry from the bad effects of science, workers and the environment. The bad news, of course, continues to outweigh the good.

On July 23 it was reported by the Washington Post that political appointees at the Department of Labor were drafting a rule that would make it more difficult to “regulate workers’ on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins.” The administration was crafty. Instead of publishing the proposal in public notices of regulatory plans it filed in December and May, it kept its plan a secret until it was published on the Web site of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Explaining the failure to post, a spokesman for the department said it wasn’t sure that it wanted to pursue a new regulation. Not everyone believes it. Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee was quoted as saying: “The fact that the Department of Labor seems to be engaged in secret rulemaking makes me highly suspicious that some high-level political appointees are up to no good.” He got that right.

On August 15 the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft assessment that concluded that the 100 studies performed by government scientists and university laboratories found health concerns associated with bisphenol A (BPA) were in error. BPA is the chemical found in can linings and baby bottles. The FDA said: “FDA has concluded that an adequate margin of safety exists for BPA at current levels of exposure from food contact uses.” The chemical industry applauded the FDA’s conclusions. Steven Hentges, an executive of the American Chemistry Council said the “FDA’s thorough analysis confirms that food contact materials containing BPA can continue to be used safely.” Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, said the FDA didn’t have enough information to arrive at its conclusions. “Clearly their effort was to minimize people being concerned about this. . . .It just seems that whenever there is an opportunity to look at a new, important issue, they just seem to be siding with industry’s point of view.” She got that right.

On October 17, 2008, the Interior Department released a new environmental impact statement changing a 1983 regulation that protects water quality from the waste generated by mountain top mining. According to the Washington Post , under present rules mining operators cannot not dump mountaintops within 100 feet of any “intermittent or permanent stream if the material harms the stream’s water quality or reduces its flow.” The law has been routinely ignored and approximately 1600 miles of streams in Appalachia have disappeared as a result. If the new rule is enacted the absolute prohibition will be replaced by an aspirational prohibition. The new rule tells mining companies to try to avoid the 100-foot limit but if that is not possible, the offender should explain why it was not possible. Joan Mulhern, senor legislative counsel for Earthjustice said she could not “imagine a circumstance in which this is not going to be challenged by environmental groups.” She got that right. That same day, however, Mr. Bush got one right and that was the bright spot in October.

October 17 it was announced that for the first time in 30 years the EPA had set rigid new standards for airborne lead particles. An even bigger surprise was that the agency was following the advice of its science advisers, something it has been increasingly reluctant to do under Stephen Johnson, its administrator. According to the New York Times, the new standards “cut the maximum allowable concentrations to a tenth of the previous standard. People who believe in science were incredulous but pleased at this sudden affection for science. Their pleasure was short lived.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal on October 28, the EPA is considering rules loosening pollution controls on power plants. The new rules will enable older power plants to continue functioning without upgrading their equipment since their pollution emission will be based on hourly rates of emissions instead of annual emissions. According to the paper, people who know of the process being undertaken have said that work on the rules has speeded up considerably in the last few weeks, presumably to get them in place before the Bush administration is out of place. Barbara Boxer and Henry Waxman wrote the EPA urging it not to adopt the rules and warning that if it did they might be “compelled to undertake extensive investigation and oversight of the agency’s and its officials’ conduct and actions.” They should hire investigators.

The foregoing is not, of course, a comprehensive list of mischief being planned by the administration before leaving office. Those who are euphoric over the election results but feel guilty about feeling so good having spent the last eight years being depressed are referred to the New York Times editorial of November 4 that contains further descriptions of George Bush’s plans to wreak havoc before slinking off into well-deserved ignominy.