Federal Cuts to Black Lung Programs Expected to Hit W.Va. Hardest


By  for West Virginia Public Radio

A McDowell County clinic is worried that federal cuts could compromise care for coal miners and their families.  The concern comes after grants for the Black Lung Clinic Programs were capped at $900,000. Since West Virginia was the only state to receive more than that annually, it’s expected to hit home the hardest.

It’s not yet clear how much money individual clinics will lose as a result of the federal cuts but for Joyce Sherman she worries that any amount of money lost could mean less service for the miners.

“It may even take some of our hours away but we really don’t know what we’re going to be facing just yet and that’s the scary part,” Tug River Health Associates Black Lung Program Director Joyce Sherman said. Black lung, or pneumoconiosis, is a deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust that causes a person’s lungs to fail.

Sherman said funding for the program helps pay for equipment maintenance, staffing and more. She says the program helps miners with everything from medical examinations to education and even filling out black lung benefits applications.

Earlier this week, Tommy Curry, a benefits counselor at Tug River, met with representatives from the United States Department of Labor met at a Princeton hotel to provide help to miners looking to fill out applications for black lung benefits.

The process of applying and even re-applying for benefits can take years. It’s a multi step process that begins with filling out paperwork, trips to qualified doctors, but that’s just the beginning.

Miners undergo what’s called pulmonary function testing to measure their ability to get air in and out of the lungs. Only miners with 60% or less of a person’s vital capacity are eligible for benefits.

Black lung is a progressive disease, so if a miner is diagnosed, the disease will eventually leave them breathless, if they live that long.

“One year they could be fine but next year a year later they could be at a point that they can’t breathe at all,” said Teresa Blackwell, a respiratory therapist at Tug River.

Blackwell said her father was diagnosed with black lung, but it wasn’t bad enough to get benefits.

“Eventually he will make it but I kind of hope he doesn’t make it because … I just want I want him to stay healthy,” Blackwell said.

After the medical records show sufficient pulmonary dysfunction, the Department of Labor has to approve the application. Even so, the coal or insurance companies can fight the claims.

Tommy Curry says he helps with court battles as well.

“If we find out about it that’s when we start fixing them with a lawyer,” he said. “We try to put them with somebody that we know that knows how to fight a black lung case.”

Credit Department of Labor

A recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed even more challenges for miners in the courtroom in which attorney’s use ‘cut throat methods’ to fight the claims.

“A coal company can get the best doctors in the world,” Curry said. “A coal miner he can only get so much.”

In February, about a month before the cuts were announced, the department of labor revealed changes meant to help miners obtain benefits easier and potentially faster as was reported by CPI. The report says that the changes will provide “some miners with an additional medical report” as well as help for government attorneys that represent the miners.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius regarding the expected cuts to clinics. Members of the West Virginia congressional delegation have also expressed concerns through news releases.

If the cuts aren’t reversed, the state will likely lose about $500,000 across eight clinics. Joyce Sherman at Tug River Health Associates fears that her clinic would be forced to cut staff and services, possibly further delaying treatment and care for miners with black lung and their families.

“It will definitely be a problem for the coal miners,” Sherman said. “When they come to see you, you want to be present. But if you don’t have the funds and the funds are cut then that means that you’re going to have to find ways to cut back that you can still provide services but it won’t be to the extent that the miner needs.”

As a coal miner’s daughter who watched her father’s health deteriorate because of black lung, Sherman said she’s disappointed.

“The coal miners have spent their life mining coal for this country not just for West Virginia but for this country,” Sherman said, “and it is our duty to provide services for them and we need funding. These people have paid taxes they’ve worked hard now they can’t breathe and you know it is our duty to help them with their medical problems and provide services for them.”

In 2012 a joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity revealed that black lung cases were on the rise in West Virginia and across Appalachia.

Despite the cuts, Tommy Curry is encouraging coal miners to apply for benefits, even if they were turned down before. Again, black lung is a progressive disease that only gets worse with time so consistent therapy and treatment can be critical for a better quality of life.


New Report Reveals High Risks, No Reward of Alberta Clipper Tar Sands Pipeline Expansion


A new report released today by the Sierra Club and 13 other groups including the Indigenous Environmental Network, examines the proposed expansion of the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline and concludes that there are significant threats to water, health and climate. The report, All Risk, No Reward: The Alberta Clipper Tar Sands Pipeline Expansion, comes in advance of a rally to stop the Alberta Clipper expansion that will take place before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission public hearing in St. Paul, MN on April 3.

“The risks are too high, said Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Any spill, leak or explosion could have a devastating effect to the rich biodiversity and cultural diversity of northern Minnesota. The human rights of Native people in northern Alberta, Canada where this crude oil comes from are already being violated. There can be no reward when it comes to dirty oil that ruins the quality of water, ecosystems and the life of people.” 

“This report confirms our worst fears about the proposed Alberta Clipper expansion,” said author Sarah Mine. “This tar sands expansion project is far too risky to communities in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, who would be subjected to extreme environmental degradation, extreme carbon pollution, and tremendous threats to their land, water, and health.”

Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc. plans to pump 800,000 barrels per day of one of the planet’s dirtiest sources of oil through North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. This expansion project would almost double the pipeline’s current capacity and put it on par with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Expanding Alberta Clipper’s capacity would expose communities and tribes to tar sands’ full complement of disturbing climate, safety, and environmental implications; potentially devastate cultural and historical resources; give the landlocked tar sands industry access to ports and enormous new overseas markets; and enable the massive, environmentally devastating tar sands growth planned by the industry.

Tar sands crude can be far more dangerous than conventional crude, especially in water, and the proposed expansion project could put the region’s clean water at risk. The tar sands dilbit sinks in water, where standard cleanup techniques do not work. The Alberta Clipper route crosses many bodies of water that are critical as drinking water sources and cultural and ecological sites. 

Enbridge Inc. has a disgraceful history of spills, including the worst onshore oil spill in U.S. history when a ruptured Enbridge pipeline poured 843,000 gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan’s Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River.

The Alberta Clipper Tar Sands Pipeline Expansion

Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc. plans to pump 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) of one of the planet’s dirtiest sources of oil through  North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, endangering our water, health, and climate. Expanding the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline would put federal, state, and tribal lands and waters at risk of devastating oil spills, including the Great Lakes and Anishinaabe/Ojibwe ceded territories. Communities and Native Nations across the Great Lakes region and beyond are fighting this unnecessary and dangerous pipeline expansion, calling instead for clean, renewable energy solutions and a 100% clean energy future.The Alberta Clipper, also known as Line 67, currently pumps up to 450,000 bpd of tar sands crude from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. From the Canadian border, the pipeline traverses 327 miles across North Dakota and Minnesota to Wisconsin and the shores of Lake Superior, passing through state, tribal, federal, and private lands, including prairie, forests, farms, rivers, and lakes. Enbridge seeks to almost double the pipeline’s capacity to 800,000 bpd, nearly the same as TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and to construct two new tar sands storage tanks on the shores of Lake Superior.1 Capacity in an existing pipeline is increased by ratcheting up the pressure inside the pipeline, forcing more tar sands through and increasing the physical stress on the pipeline.

Expanding Alberta Clipper’s capacity would expose our communities and tribes to tar sands’ full complement of disturbing climate, safety, and environmental implications; potentially devastate cultural and historical resources; give the landlocked tar sands industry access to ports and enormous new overseas markets; and enable the massive, environmentally devastating tar sands growth planned by the industry. Click here to Read / Download the full Report (PDF)

Click here to read more about the Alberta Clipper Pipeline Expansion and the fight to stop Enbridge Inc.’s efforts to transport more tar sands oil to the U.S. and eventual export to foreign markets.

Mark Westlund, Sierra Club
Tom BK Goldtooth, IEN Ex. Dir. 


200,000 Pounds Of Oiled Sand Found Along Texas Coastline After Spill


The March 22 collision between a ship and a barge carrying up to 4,000 barrels of “sticky, gooey, thick, tarry” bunker fuel oil in Galveston Bay, Texas has resulted in more than200,000 pounds of oiled sand and debris accumulating along some 22 miles of shoreline on the Texas coast.

The spill, which shut down the busy Houston Ship Channel for three days, has had wide-ranging economic and ecological impacts. Areas surrounding the spill are environmentally sensitive and provide crucial stopover points for a number of migrating bird species. These include whooping cranes, one of North America’s rarest birds, which winter on the nearby Matagorda Island. Parts of the island have been contaminated by oil from the spill. Fewer than half of the whooping cranes have started this year’s migration north, and officials are taking extra precaution not to disturb them during cleanup efforts.

As of Thursday, the Coast Guard had recovered 329 oiled birds from Galveston Bay to North Padre Island, most of them dead. According to the Texas Tribune, birds affected by the spill include ducks, herrings, herons, brown and white pelicans, sanderlings, loons, willets, black-bellied plover and the piping plover.

Task force members remove oil-contaminated sand from the beach on the North Padre Island National Seashore, Texas, April 1, 2014.

Task force members remove oil-contaminated sand from the beach on the North Padre Island National Seashore, Texas, April 1, 2014.


Marine life in the area is also suffering. Since the ship and barge collided, 29 dead dolphins have been found in the vicinity of Galveston Bay. A total of 47 dead dolphins were found in March, above the average of 34 and triple last years’ 15. Scientists are working to determine if the oil spill played a role in the elevated number of deaths. A high number of deceased dolphins are typically found during what’s referred to as the “stranding season” between January and March, and it’s possible that more are being found this year because of the increase in coastal workers helping with the cleanup.

Whether oil is responsible for the deaths of the dolphins or not, there will likely be long-term chronic health impacts for marine life, including irregular heart rhythm and cardiac arrest, which have been found to be associated with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf several years ago.

A shrimp boat captain also reportedly caught an entire catch of shrimp coated in oil, furthering concern about the spill’s impact on the seafood industry. Already local businesses are saying shrimp sales have taken a hit because of public perception. Fishermen and bait shop owners are suing over the spill, and on Friday a federal judge ordered the seizure of the cargo ship involved in the collision. The ship, called the Summer Wind, must remain in the area as an ongoing Coast Guard investigation attempts to determine who was at fault for the collision.


Is there Atrazine in your drinking water?


By  and  for Global News Canada

For more than 50 years farmers across North America have been spraying atrazine, a pesticide, on crops, mainly corn, applying millions of pounds a year.

That widespread use of the weed killer has also led to runoff. Atrazine can end up in lakes, streams and sometimes in drinking water.

“Atrazine is the number one contaminant found in drinking water in the U.S. and probably globally probably in the world”, says University of California Berkeley, scientist Tyrone Hayes.

Health Canada is aware that atrazine can make its way into drinking water. According to the agency, “because atrazine has been classified in Group III (possibly carcinogenic to humans)” an acceptable amount in drinking water has been set at 5 parts per billion. In the United States, the level has been set at 3 parts per billion.

That means as long as the amount of atrazine stays below that limit, Health Canada believes it is safe for human consumption.

Atrazine levels in drinking water vary in different regions of the country and during different times of the year. For example, in areas where there are more corn crops and greater application of the pesticide there is the potential for higher runoff.

According to Health Canada, “in areas where atrazine is used extensively, it (or its dealkylated metabolites) is one of the most frequently detected pesticides in surface and well water. Atrazine contamination has been reported in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan.”

Atrazine is manufactured by Syngenta, the world’s largest agribusiness. The European Union removed atrazine from the market in 2004.

In 2012, as part of a class action lawsuit settlement, Syngenta paid $105 million to more than 1000 municipal water systems in the U.S. to help pay for the removal of atrazine from drinking water. Syngenta denies any liability.

There is a lot of research examining amphibian and wildlife exposure to atrazine.

“Atrazine is probably the most well studied pesticide on the planet,” says University of South Florida professor Jason Rohr, “perhaps only rivaled by DDT.”

READ MORE: Debate rages over health effects of pesticide atrazine

But there is less information about atrazine and human health. Some studies suggest a possible association between atrazine and ovarian, breast and prostate cancers and birth defects including smaller male genitals and gastroschisis (a congenital birth defect in the abdominal wall, in which the baby’s intestines can be outside the belly).

“So for humans there are studies showing a correlation between atrazine exposure and low sperm count or low fertility, increased risk of breast cancer, increased risk of prostate cancer, deformities of the genitals”, says Hayes.

Syngenta, the manufacturer of atrazine, says these studies regarding humans that cite risks or potential risks are scientifically flawed, and that other experts have reviewed the research and say it’s unreliable. Syngenta reaffirms that Atrazine is safe, and approved for use by Health Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

“Regarding other impacts of atrazine, the EPA stated very clearly in its presentation to the July 2011 Scientific Advisory Panel that the available data do not support any association between atrazine exposure and cancer”, Ann Bryan, Senior Manager for Syngenta, told 16×9, in a statement.

That same advisory panel to the EPA criticized the Agency for putting all cancers into one category in its atrazine assessment. “It would be useful and appropriate to make conclusions for individual cancers as opposed to making a blanket determination for cancer in general.” It then provided a list of cancers with “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential”: ovarian cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, hairy-cell leukemia, and thyroid cancer. The panel recommended follow-up studies.

Filtering out atrazine?

What can you do if you are concerned about atrazine in your drinking water? Check with your local water provider to see if it monitors and tests atrazine and how often. Also, you can purchase a home water filtration system that will remove atrazine from your water.

Water monitoring

In Canada, the federal government sets the guidelines for the acceptable limit of atrazine in water, and then the provincial governments establish the regulation and municipalities and local public health offices and agencies are responsible for monitoring and reporting. It can be complicated, the Canadian Council Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment explains the system this way:

“In Canada, water quality monitoring is carried out within partnerships amongst provincial, territorial, and federal governments, municipalities, universities, water associations, environmental groups and volunteers. In general, provinces conduct much of the water quality monitoring within their boundaries. The federal government’s monitoring focuses on inter-provincial and international boundary waters (e.g., Great Lakes) and other areas of federal authority (i.e., Territories, National Parks, and other federal lands). Monitoring of recreational waters is generally carried out by local municipalities. Monitoring of tap water, delivered through municipal supply systems, is also usually undertaken by local municipalities, often in partnership with provincial agencies.”


Anadarko Petroleum to pay $5.15 billion to settle pollution case, Justice Dept. says


By  and  for the Washington Post

The Justice Department announced the biggest environmental cash settlement in history Thursday, securing a $5.15 billion deal with Anadarko Petroleum to clean up dozens of sites across the country and compensate more than 7,000 people living with the effects of the contamination.

The agreement resolves claims stemming from the toxic legacy of one of the oil firm’s subsidiaries, Kerr-McGee, which operated a range of U.S. chemical, energy and manufacturing businesses over 85 years.

At a news conference, Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney of the Southern District of New York, said Kerr-McGee, which Anadarko acquired in 2006, left a trail of pollution in its wake and tried to evade responsibility by forcing U.S. taxpayers to pay for its actions.

The deal grew out of a lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court concerning Tronox, a paint materials manufacturer and unit of Kerr-McGee that was spun off in 2005 and later went bankrupt. The Anadarko Litigation Trust alleged that Kerr-McGee deliberately transferred its environmental and tort liabilities from its legacy businesses to Tronox before severing ties.

“Kerr-McGee’s businesses all over this country left significant, lasting environmental damage in their wake,” said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. “It tried to shed its responsibility for this environmental damage and stick the United States taxpayers with the huge cleanup bill.”

Despite those harsh words, investors — who had been worried about Anadarko’s financial outlook since December, when U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper said Kerr-McGee acted “with intent to hinder” by severing ties with Tronox — appeared relieved at news of a deal: The company’s stock rose Thursday, closing at $99.02 a share, up 14.5 percent.

“This settlement agreement with the Litigation Trust and the U.S. Government eliminates the uncertainty this dispute has created, and the proceeds will fund the remediation and cleanup of the legacy environmental liabilities and tort claims,” Al Walker, Anadarko’s chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. “Investor focus can now return to the tremendous value embedded in Anadarko’s asset base, allowing our peer-leading operational and exploration results to again become the basis for valuation.”

The firm also estimated that it would receive a net $550 million tax benefit from the deal.

The stretch of Kerr-McGee’s operations over nearly a century was vast, Justice Department officials said, encompassing everything from wood treatment to rocket fuel processing. Its perchlorate business contaminated Lake Mead, a major source of drinking water for the Southwest; its uranium mining operations left radioactive waste piles throughout Navajo Nation territory.

The litigation trust that reached the agreement with Anadarko represented the federal government, 11 states, the Navajo Nation, a trust for individual plaintiffs and some environmental response trusts.

“If you are responsible for 85 years of poisoning the Earth, then you are responsible for cleaning it up. That is why this case was brought. That is why we are here today,” Bharara said, adding that the company “polluted indiscriminately and left others holding the toxic tab.”

The settlement will provide nearly $1 billion to clean up drinking water and address health risks for the Navajo Nation; Bharara noted that members of the community were so worried local children might swim in the contaminated water that “the Navajo Nation felt compelled to distribute a comic book warning children to avoid the radioactive uranium.”

“That’s what it came to,” Bharara said. “Kerr-McGee avoided its responsibilities, and children had to be warned away from swimming in contaminated water.”

Other money will be spent on cleanup sites in small towns and major urban centers, from a series of bluffs in Riley Pass, S.D., to the streets of Chicago. It will reimburse the Environmental Protection Agency for $217 million the agency has spent addressing lingering pollution from a wood treatment facility that used coal tar creosote and operated from 1910 until the mid-1950s in Manville, N.J, and give the state of New Jersey $4.5 million to compensate for the fact that the area’s groundwater resource can not be brought up to meet federal standards.

Fadel Gheit, a senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer, said the agreement was far lower than some of the projections analysts had been making; the plaintiffs had been seeking as much as $20.8 billion, while experts projected it would range between $5.2 billion to $14.2 billion.

“They settled on the low end of the range, so that’s why the market was happy with it,” he said, adding that it was “the lesser of two evils.”

Still, Gheit added, the size of the accord will put companies on notice that they can’t evade legal liability for environmental damages by severing their relationship with subsidiaries. “It tells you that you can run, but you cannot hide.”

Environmental Integrity Project director Eric Schaeffer, who led the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement from 1997 to 2002, said in an interview that the settlement was “great news” because it would make major companies take the financial implications of their actions more seriously. He noted that as a federal enforcement official, he envied the Securities and Exchange Commission for the huge legal settlements it could reach with Wall Street firms.

“I’ve always been frustrated that environmental violations haven’t been valued and weighted in the same way,” he said.


Childhood Leukemia Associated With Traffic


Studies reviewed by the CDC suggest “that childhood leukemia is associated with residential traffic exposure during the postnatal period, but not during the prenatal period. Read more.


Fracking Air Monitoring Misleading


A new study helps explain this discrepancy. The most commonly used air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they don’t catch toxic emissions that spike. Read more.

My Kitchen Table


I thought I’d tell you the story about My Kitchen Table. It’s been 35 years since Love Canal days when my kitchen was full of papers and I operated my volunteer work with neighbors from the kitchen table. Today, I’m back at the kitchen table, phone in one hand, piles of paper all around me and managing staff and volunteers through my e-mails and front door. Yes I do have e-mail today which has made some of this less difficult than 35 years ago. But also a little crazy given every question everyone has about office related work, decisions, projects, meeting and so on fill my in box in about one hour no matter how hard I try to keep it manageable.

I don’t have small children needing care as I did back then, but I do have staff needing things. The difference is when my children were . . . well complaining . . . wanting something that I could not give them, I could send them to their room or outdoors, not possible with staff.

Then there is the issue of sharing the house printer and telephone. I’ve decided that I’m not as good at sharing as I use to be. Go buy your own is what you’ll hear me yell when someone is standing over me waiting to use my printer, scanner or copier. Turn it down is the other shout, often coming from me. No music or TV while I’m working, I need quiet.

Working from home has changed since back in the day, but we are safe and we are continuing to keep our programs moving forward as best we can. Maybe if we had planned to work from our homes it would be different . . . but there was a fire making it difficult for CHEJ, and me, right now.

In the case that people don’t know let me go backwards for a minute. Our office building caught fire a little over a week ago. It was scary but no one was hurt and for the most part our offices were damaged by smoke and soot – too dangerous to enter. That said it has been difficult to keep up with our on-going work. I apologize to the groups who asked for CHEJ to send out alerts about comment periods, protest actions and other activities. Our database is safe, backed up off site but our ability to respond with that data base is limited.

The conversation with the landlord today about when we might be able to get back into the space was not reassuring. It was clear that getting back in before the end of the month is not likely. Fortunately, CHEJ does have insurance to cover many of the losses but we all know how that works . . . another struggle for sure. We’ll need new computers and printers given the thick soot laying on top of everything and likely in the guts of those electronics.

So if you are looking for me I’m at my kitchen table. My e-mail box is full but I get through it each day. Please have a little patience if we are not as responsive as we usually are. By all means don’t ask me to share, play loud music or request things I just can’t give you. It will only be a few more weeks and we’ll be fully back. Thanks.

consumer products image

States target toxic chemicals as Washington fails to act


By Ronnie Greene for The Center forPublic Integrity

In Vermont, the Senate has just passed a bill potentially empowering the Green Mountain State to ban chemicals it deems harmful to consumers. Some 3,000 miles away, in Washington State, environmental reformers weren’t as successful: A bill to ban six toxic flame retardants died in the Senate, beaten back by industry opposition and politicians’ cries of state overreaching.

In state capitols from Maine to Oregon, environmental advocates are filing bills to identify and ban noxious chemicals and industry groups are fighting back with pointed rebukes and high-pitched lobbying. Toxic reform legislation is either breathing with new life or being extinguished altogether.

The toxics tug-of-war in state houses is direct fallout from the muddled environmental politicking of Washington, D.C.

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, a federal framework intended to safeguard the public from dangerous chemicals. Yet in the nearly four decades since, TSCA, as it is known, has done little more than gather dust. Among tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency has “only been able to require testing on a little more than 200 existing chemicals,” and banned five, the EPA told The Center for Public Integrity.

Everyone wants to revamp TSCA — from the industry’s $100 million lobbying arm, the American Chemistry Council, to the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, to the EPA itself.

Yet three years to the month since the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg proposed sweeping change through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, the TSCA overhaul remains in the works, with proposals, counter-proposals and criticismsabout the working draft’s fine print.

Fed up with logjams in D.C., state legislators are filing hundreds of measures in their own states to do what the federal government hasn’t — take action against destructive chemicals, by singling out the most dangerous toxins and seeking to remove them from shelves.

While the political smoke continues in Washington, the chemical reform fire is playing out in statehouses from Montpelier to Olympia.

At least 442 bills involving toxics and chemicals have been filed in 2014, or refiled from previous sessions, covering 39 states, according to an environmental health legislation database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. A year earlier, 399 such bills were filed and the year before that, the database shows, more than 500.

“There’s only so much you will say, ‘We can wait and see. It will be great if the feds do something.’ I think people are losing patience,” said Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency for Natural Resources.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported last year, the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups fight nearly every state measure, contending that a patchwork of state laws would do more harm than good, and that true change should come through TSCA. The industry’s statehouse pushback, fueled by a chemical advocacy group that spends tens of millions of lobbying dollars along with making political campaign donations, has helped beat back hundreds of state bills in recent years.

Vermont’s Johnson is among the state officials who understand the argument that having multitudes of differing state laws “is not the way to go.” Yet in his state, as in others, the argument of waiting for Congress to act has grown stale.

“I’ve been personally to the statehouse here in Vermont for five years in a row. ‘Let’s wait and see what the feds do,’” said Johnson, who serves on the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state leaders. “It’s getting pretty old.”

Bills filed, and fought, from Vermont to Washington State

Last week in Vermont, the Senate approved Senate Bill 239, which would allow the state Department of Health to “identify and publish a list of chemicals of high concern,” following the lead of states such as Washington and Maine. The bill would require manufacturers of products using such chemicals to notify the state, “and to replace the chemical with a safer alternative.”

“Given where we are with the toxics reform at the federal level; given that we haven’t seen movement there; and given that we have over 60,000 chemicals that haven’t been adequately tested for their effect on public health, this is the way to begin,” the bill sponsor, Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, told a Vermont news website.

The bill must clear the House before becoming law.

As in other states, the toxics legislation faces opposition from industry, with lobbyists describing it as another piece in a patchwork of state laws across the U.S.

The Toy Industry Association, a trade group composed of 700 members, has gone on record opposing the bill, citing what it views as a “flawed scientific approach” as the basis for the measure, and the “immense cost to businesses” and the state.

“TIA commends the bill sponsors for their keen interest in the safety of children. We share that interest, and our industry is founded on the mission of bringing fun and joy to children’s lives,” the association wrote Vermont legislators.

“However, we have serious concerns regarding Senate Bill 239 as it does not consider the existing robust safety system for toys sold in this country — including federal regulation and international standards — and will create unnecessary burden on companies doing business in Vermont with arguably no measurable increase in safety.”

In Washington State, industry opposition helped quash the Toxic-Free Kids & Families Act. The measure would have banned six flame retardants on the state’s list of “Chemicals of High Concern for Children” — and put the onus on manufacturers to replace them with safer chemicals.

Sen. Sharon Nelson, a Democrat who has pushed toxics legislation for several years in Washington State, is among the legislators weary of waiting for the federal government to act. “We haven’t seen the changes at the federal level,” she said. “Ultimately the science will prevail, but it’s hard.”

As they had in previous sessions, the Association of Washington Business and the American Chemistry Council pushed back against the flame retardants bill, officially filing opposition to the proposal.

The bill died in the state Senate.

“I’ve seen every time we go into this across the nation, the chemistry council comes in behind the scenes and does a good job about casting questions: Should we be doing this at the state level? They’ve done a good job of just constantly either trying to water down the bills or kill them,” Senator Nelson said. “They’ve been effective. They are well-heeled lobbyists.”

Republican State Sen. Doug Ericksen, chair of the Washington legislature’s Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, said the bill as proposed was problematic, putting too much power in the hands of a state agency to potentially ban chemicals.

Ericksen said he proposed a compromise measure but Democrats didn’t go along. Sen. Nelson said that measure was watered down to ban chemicals already being phased out.

In a broader sense, Sen. Ericksen echoes the industry’s biggest complaint with state bills. “The issue you get into is creating an island in Washington State,” Ericksen said. “I would say it doesn’t help for Washington State to have a go it alone mentality.”

Brandon Housekeeper, an Association of Washington Business government affairs official, used the same phrasing as Ericksen in describing his group’s opposition, asking “Whether Washington should act alone as an island and ban chemicals used in commerce.”

Housekeeper said the AWB, which describes itself as the state’s “premiere advocate for the business community” representing 8,000 members, helped Ericksen create the alternate bill. “Just an out and out ban in these things in their use didn’t seem appropriate, so we proposed a different path to get to that result,” Housekeeper said.

How effective was the industry effort? “I think the opponents of the legislation obviously had some voice and hand in how legislators reacted to the legislation. Because I think we asked valid questions,” Housekeeper said.

The AWB’s slogan: “We mean business.” Ericksen said he listens to industry and “all different points of view.”

“The industry groups are not necessarily opposed to eliminating these harmful chemicals from these product lines,” he said. “They just find it difficult when they are mandated to be included in one state and mandated to be prohibited in another state.”

More state battles: Oregon, Connecticut, Maine

Legislators in other states have also filed bills this session to identify and remove unsafe chemicals. In state after state, the legislation encounters strong industry pushback, with critics working capitol hallways to douse reform proposals.

“Even if these bills don’t pass, it’s raising awareness,” said Oregon Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, who for several years has proposed a bill that would, like Washington State’s, create a state list of high priority chemicals for children’s health.

Again this year, the bill was shot down. “The industry fought it very hard,” the Oregon legislator said.

Creating lists of dangerous chemicals can make a difference, Keny-Guyer believes. “If companies see they are showing up in these things, there’s much more incentive for them to find safer chemicals,” she said.

In many states, getting from proposal to approved bill is a steep climb.

In Connecticut, advocates are again trying to win approval for a bill allowing the state to compile and maintain a list of harmful chemicals. Supporters crafted the bill so it would not cost the state government a penny.

That same measure was pitched in 2013 but failed when the proposal was talked to death by a committee and never came to a vote.

“We really feel like we’re doing everything we can to kind of build momentum, but we’re not resting on anything at this point. I know that the industry is continuing to fight the bill on a daily basis,” said Anne Hulick, coordinator for the nonprofit Coalition for a Safe & Healthy Connecticut. “I’m worried the opposition is building and we don’t see it.”

The lack of an updated TSCA is a “really big factor,” she said, in why states like Connecticut need their own laws to target hazardous chemicals.

In Maine, advocates are pushing legislation in a state where the Republican governor last year vetoed a bill intended to protect pregnant women and children from harmful chemicals, and where the head of the Department of Environmental Protection is a former lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council. A spokeswoman for the Maine DEP’s director, Patricia Aho, said any potential conflicts had been “thoroughly vetted” before she took office in 2011. The governor’s office said he vetoed bills that were “not good policy.”

This year’s toxic reform push is a direct offshoot of the languishing pace of TSCA overhaul in D.C.

“It’s huge,” said Beth Ahearn, political director for the Maine Conservation Voters. “It creates all the reason we’ve decided to go ahead on our own, because we cannot wait for TSCA reform.”

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Chemical Valley


By for the New Yorker

On the morning of Thursday, January 9, 2014, the people of Charleston, West Virginia, awoke to a strange tang in the air off the Elk River. It smelled like licorice. The occasional odor is part of life in Charleston, the state capital, which lies in an industrial area that takes flinty pride in the nickname Chemical Valley. In the nineteenth century, natural brine springs made the region one of America’s largest producers of salt. The saltworks gave rise to an industry that manufactured gunpowder, antifreeze, Agent Orange, and other “chemical magic,” as The Saturday Evening Post put it, in 1943. The image endured. Today, the Chemical Valley Roller Girls compete in Roller Derby events with a logo of a woman in fishnet stockings and a gas mask. After decades of slow decline, the local industry has revived in recent years, owing to the boom in cheap natural gas, which has made America one of the world’s most inexpensive places to make chemicals.

At 8:16 a.m., a resident called the state Department of Environmental Protection and said that something in the air was, in the operator’s words, “coating his wife’s throat.” Downtown, the mayor, Danny Jones, smelled it and thought, Well, it’s just a chemical in the air. It’ll move. A few minutes passed. “I stuck my mouth up to a water fountain and took a big drink, and I thought, We’re in trouble,” he recalls. People were calling 911, and the state sent out two inspectors. Eventually, they reached a chemical-storage facility run by Freedom Industries, a “tank farm,” with seventeen white metal pillbox-shaped containers clustered on a bluff above the Elk River.

The staff initially said that there was nothing out of the ordinary, but, when the inspectors asked to look around, a company executive, Dennis Farrell, told them that he had a problem at Tank No. 396, a forty-eight-thousand-gallon container of industrial chemicals. At the foot of the tank, the inspectors found a shallow open-air lake of an oily substance, gurgling like a mountain spring. When hazardous-material crews arrived, they followed a liquid trail under a concrete wall, into the bushes, and down a slope, where it disappeared beneath ice on the river.

Freedom Industries was obligated to report the spill to a state hot line. The operator, who identified herself as Laverne, asked what was leaking; the caller, a staff member named Bob Reynolds, said, “Uh, MCHM.”

“MCHM?” Laverne asked.

“Right,” he said, and offered the scientific name.

Laverne paused and said, “Say again?”

MCHM—4-methylcyclohexane methanol—is part of a chemical bath that the mining industry uses to wash clay and rock from coal before it is burned. There are more than eighty thousand chemicals available for use in America, but, unless they are expected to be consumed, their effects on humans are not often tested, a principle known in the industry as “innocent until proven guilty.” MCHM was largely a mystery to the officials who now confronted the task of containing it. But they knew that the site posed an immediate problem: it was a mile upriver from the largest water-treatment plant in West Virginia. The plant served sixteen per cent of the state’s population, some three hundred thousand people—a figure that had risen in the past decade, because coal mining has reduced the availability and quality of other water sources, prompting West Virginians to board up their wells and tap into the public system.

This was West Virginia’s fifth major industrial accident in eight years. Most accidents unfold deep in the mountains that contain the state’s natural resources. In this case, the leaders of the state were less than three miles away—near enough to smell it. The spill occurred on the second day of the annual legislative session, when lawmakers were in the State Capitol, a handsome limestone edifice with a gilded dome and landscaped grounds on the north bank of the Kanawha River.

The spill struck a state in the throes of one of America’s most thorough political transformations. Once a Democratic stronghold, West Virginia has moved so far to the right that, in 2012, President Obama lost all fifty-five counties, a first for a Presidential candidate of either major party. In the Democratic Presidential primary, a challenger had won forty-one per cent of the vote—impressive in part because the candidate, Keith Judd, is serving seventeen and a half years in a federal prison for extortion.

The state has become a standard-bearer for pro-business, limited-government conservatism. The day before the chemical spill, the governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, delivered his State of the State address, criticizing federal environmental regulators and vowing, “I will never back down from the E.P.A., because of its misguided policies on coal.” Tomblin, a conservative Democrat elected in 2011, cut corporate taxes and denounced the federal government for overstepping its authority. To balance the budget, he tapped other government funds and called for broad cuts, including reducing agency spending by seventy million dollars. For the second consecutive year, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection would take a 7.5-per-cent cut in state funds, dropping to its lowest level since 2008.

At first, Freedom Industries estimated the leak to be as small as twenty-five hundred gallons, about sixty barrels. Within days, the estimate had tripled. Eventually, the company raised it to ten thousand gallons, and reported that a second chemical, known as PPH, had leaked as well. At 6 p.m., the Governor appeared on television and issued a warning unprecedented in Chemical Valley: he told three hundred thousand people that their tap water was not safe for “drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing.” It was one of the most serious incidents of chemical contamination of drinking water in American history.