Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Right to know’ Category

Public Citizen Honors Tom “Smitty” Smith

 

Donate Here

After more than three decades of extraordinary work running Public Citizen’s Texas office, “Smitty,” formally known as Thomas Smith, is hanging up his spurs. Smitty is a Texas institution and a national treasure, and on February 1st, we celebrated him right.

Over 200 people attended a retirement dinner for Smitty at the Barr Mansion in Austin, TX on Wednesday evening.  Friends and colleagues from around the state who had work with Smitty on issues over his career that included clean energy, ethics reform, pollution mitigation, nuclear waste disposal, etc came to pay homage to a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

Mayor Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchens

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Smitty

Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel and Smitty

During the evening, Austin Mayor – Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioner – Brigid Shea, and Dallas County Commissioner – Dr. Theresa Daniel presented Smitty with resolutions passed by the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and Dallas County Commissioners Court all of which acknowledge Smitty’s contributions to their communities and the state of Texas.

 

 

 

Adrian Shelley (front left) and Rob Weissman (front right) at Tom “Smitty” Smith’s retirement event.

Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, thanked Smitty for his service to Public Citizen for the past 31 years and introduced the new director for the Texas office, Adrian Shelley, the current Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Smitty’ impending departure fromPublic Citizen will leave a big hole in advocacy for progressive issues here in Texas, but both Smitty and Robert Weissman expressed confidence that Adrian would lead the Texas office forward into a new era of progressive advocacy.  Adrian is a native Texan from the City of Houston. He has served as the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston since 2013. He first worked with Air Alliance Houston as a legal fellow in 2010, then as a Community Outreach Coordinator in 2012. In that time, Public Citizen has worked closely with Air Alliance Houston through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), a coalition of nonprofits and community groups which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth.

So be assured that Adrian and the Texas staff of Public Citizen are committed to carrying on the battle for justice, for democracy, for air clean and  energy and for clean politics. We can and will protect our children and the generations to come. For this, we can still use your help.  You can make a tax deductible donation to the Texas office of Public Citizen to help us continue his vital work on climate, transportation, civil justice, consumer protection, ethics, campaign finance reform and more

Read Full Post »

IMG_1653Around 10:10 AM on Sunday July 17th, a pipeline leaked propylene in the community of Baytown, TX, near the ExxonMobil Baytown refinery. Propylene is a dense, colorless gas that is considered non-toxic but flammable. The pipeline leak highlights some of the challenges associated with emergency response along within the Houston region.

At 10:30 AM, according to the Houston Chronicle, three houses were evacuated and all others within the vicinity of the leak were told to shelter in place. The emergency response was mixed. Residents who signed up for city notifications through Baytown Alert were apparently notified by phone and by email around 10:30 AM about the order to shelter-in-place. Yet some confusion remained – who exactly did the shelter-in-place include? What had happened, and what kind of chemical was released – something flammable or something toxic? Should residents downwind be concerned?

The CAER line, which is supported by the East Harris County Manufacturers Association, provides a hotline for Harris County residents to call to obtain more information regarding emergency situations. During the incident on Sunday, several people known to us called CAER to hear the messages it posted regarding the situation. It is unclear how quickly the first message regarding the incident was posted to CAER; a Baytown resident stated that it took about an hour following the incident before CAER posted a message. On Sunday at 1:05 PM, there were no current messages, even though the shelter-in-place had not yet been lifted. At 2:30 PM, CAER’s message stated that a propylene leaked resulted in the shelter-in-place warning. The City of Baytown reported via twitter that the shelter-in-place had been lifted at 2:38 PM. At 3:30 PM, CAER’s message line mentioned the leak without any mention of a shelter-in-place. Around 4:20 PM there were no current messages on the CAER line.

Although the City of Baytown notified residents of the shelter-in-place, the residents we spoke with never received the all clear and were not informed when the shelter-in-place had been lifted either via siren or via email and phone. In fact, it is unclear if sirens were used to communicate the shelter-in-place, which is an important way to inform people who may be visiting the area or who may not have access to other technology. Many questions remain unanswered and the Healthy Ports Community Coalition (HPCC) is actively researching to fully understand the emergency response.

The HPCC is also proposing a system like an amber alert system to make use of our modern technology so that residents can be informed immediately when emergency evacuations or a shelter-in-place is called for, notified when it is all clear to return to normal, and they can be instructed specifically on what steps to take to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. In this case, Baytown residents were lucky that the chemical leaked was not deemed toxic and that no one suffered any known health impacts from the leak. HPCC is working to keep residents safe and informed for when the next incident happens.

hpcc

 

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition is growing a strong base of well-informed and active local residents who engage public and private stakeholders directly on priority issues including jobs, pollution, health, neighborhood safety, and economic opportunities.

 

Read Full Post »

Coalition for Sensible SafeguardsThe Coalition for Sensible Safeguards strongly opposes the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA), which the House passed on Tuesday. They are urging members of Congress to oppose it and The White House  has issued a veto threat for the Bill . This innocuous-sounding bill is designed to undermine our nation’s environmental, public health, workplace safety and consumer financial security protections – not improve them.

The RAA would rewrite dozens of laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act and the Food Safety Modernization Act by requiring federal agencies to put corporate profits ahead of the health and safety of American workers and families. Agencies would have to produce highly speculative estimates of all the indirect costs and benefits of proposed rules and do the same for any potential alternatives. What counts and does not count as an indirect cost or a potential alternative? The bill leaves that up to the imagination of industry.

In addition, the RAA would hamstring the work of agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The bill would subject their work to review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is infamous for delaying, diluting and blocking important new safeguards. Federal agencies already take years to issue health and safety standards. The dozens of cumbersome requirements added by this bill would make that process even longer.

Any high-stakes rule that miraculously made it through these roadblocks would face unprecedented challenges. The RAA would allow industry lobbyists to second-guess the work of respected scientists through legal challenges, sparking a wave of litigation that would add even more costs and delays to the rulemaking process – while putting the lives, health and safety of millions of Americans at risk.

The costs of blocking crucial standards and safeguards are clear: The Wall Street economic collapse, the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, the West Fertilizer Company explosion in West, TX, countless food and product safety recalls and massive environmental disasters including the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina and the Freedom Industries chemical spill in West Virginia are just some of the most recent examples.

It’s no wonder polling shows that Americans want better enforcement of our nation’s rules and standards. Congress should listen to the public and stop trying to sabotage the safeguards that protect us all.

To learn more about the potential effects of the bill, see the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards’ 2011 report: Impacts of the Regulatory Accountability Act. The latest version of the bill has been partially revised, but the problems at the heart of the bill remain.

Read Full Post »

Duke Energy said on Monday afternoon that between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released from a pond at its retired coal fired power plant in Eden, NC, and spilled into the Dan River.

2014-02-04 Re-enforcing and patching the berm to the ash basin at the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C.Joseph Rodriquez - News & Record

Re-enforcing and patching the berm to the ash basin at the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C.
Photo by Joseph Rodriquez, News & Record

Duke said a 48-inch stormwater pipe beneath the unlined 27-acre ash pond broke Sunday afternoon, and tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and water drained into the pipe before spilling into the Dan River. Duke Energy says that the dam along the river remains secure and has not been affected.

Duke did not issue a press release to inform the public until Monday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the spill occurred.  Duke said it notified local emergency managers and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Sunday afternoon. Duke says the leak has been temporarily stopped and they are working on a permanent solution. Duke has 14 coal fired power plants in the state, seven of which have been retired.

The closest community downstream from the spill is Danville, VA, which takes its water from the Dan River only six miles from the pond. Officials are saying that water samples confirm that the water leaving the city’s treatment facility meets public health standards.

“All water leaving our treatment facility has met public health standards,” said Barry Dunkley, division director of water and wastewater treatment for Danville Utilities. “We do not anticipate any problems going forward in treating the water we draw from the Dan River.”

Coal ash, the toxic waste material left after coal is burned, contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and more than a dozen other heavy metals. Studies from the EPA have found that people living within one mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer.

This coal ash spill is the third-largest in U.S. history. In 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal plant in Tennessee.

The Dan River coal ash spill is the latest in a string of industrial accidents that have jeopardized the environment and health of citizens downstream.

Read Full Post »

Remember sitting at home during February 2 of 2011 as the temperatures dropped and the power kept getting turned off. As millions of Texas sat in the cold and dark Luminant, Texas largest power generator, wasn’t able to get its power plants running along with other generators.

Luminant Energy Company, LLC’s, recently was fined $750,000 as part of a settlement agreement with the Public Utility Commission of Texas stemming from the alleged failure of several Luminant power generating units on February 2, 2011 (when record low temperatures caused a spike in power demand and rolling blackouts were implemented throughout the state).

That February other generation companies saw the cold front coming and got their plants up hot and running keeping this cold snap from being an even bigger disaster than it was.

In ERCOT the state’s power grid operator generation companies are under an obligation to run their power plants and a $750,000 fine in an almost $30 billion dollar market is not much of a fine at all.

Now things are looking dark, gloomy and a bit chilly for EFH Luminants parent company. In November 2013, Energy Future Holdings (EFH) made a decision not to file for bankruptcy saying they believe the company can reach a deal with creditors next spring to avoid a contentious court fight. But with a looming balloon debt payment of $3.8 billion next fall, and a subsidiary of EFH, things are stacking up against the beleaguered Dallas based company.

Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) member and Sierra Club Conservation Director, Cyrus Reed weighed in on this development in a statement, saying, “Hopefully, this rather modest fine will send a message to Luminant and other coal and gas generators that when they are paid money by ERCOT to be available in times of emergency — such as the freeze of February 2011 — they must be available. This means utility companies like Luminant must properly maintain their generating units so that breakdowns and emergencies don’t take place when people need electricity the most, such as times of extreme temperatures.”

David Power, Deputy Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen and also an ERCOT member said, “As ERCOT and the PUC consider further changes to ancillary services and potentially to the wholesale energy market, they must make sure that those paid for performance can realistically perform, or face stiff penalties. Texas doesn’t need new, expensive power plants to meet our needs and power our economy, but we do need responsible utilities following the letter of the law and taking responsibility for its assets. What did perform well in both in February and August 2011 was demand response, a method of reducing electricity demand, by large and small industrial and commercial entities.  As Texas considers changes to our market we should prioritize resources like demand response that we can depend on.”

For it’s part, a representative of Luminant said in an email to FierceEnergy that “with this settlement, Luminant resolves all alleged violations of ERCOT protocols and PUC rules from the cold weather event in 2011.The agreement represents an amicable settlement of disputed issues in which Luminant admits no violations.”The email continues, “The severe unprecedented cold in February, 2011 was a trying yet learning experience for ERCOT, the PUC, state lawmakers, electric generators and transmission and distribution companies. Some 225 generation resources in ERCOT, more than 40 percent of the total generation, experienced a trip, failed start or derate. Since 2011, Luminant has joined other generators, electric transmission firms and state agencies to take measures to better prepare for future extreme weather.”

But trouble just seems to keep cropping up:

A prior and unrelated Department of Justice Clean Air Act complaint that was recently unsealed alleged that Luminant made major modifications to Units 1, 2, and 3 at their Martin Lake coal plant in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 and continues to operate the plant without installing pollution controls for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The complaint also alleges that Luminant has improperly withheld information from the government requested by EPA under Section 114(a) of the Clean Air Act.

According to the claims, Luminant made “major modifications” at its Big Brown and Martin Lake coal plants that increased sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions without updating air pollution permits or installing pollution safeguards. The Clean Air Act requires plants to obtain permits and install modern pollution controls before making modifications that will increase emissions.

In regard to the DOJ lawsuit, Luminant made this statement via email to FierceEnergy: “There’s no change in our position.  We firmly believe that we have complied with all requirements of the Clean Air Act for the Big Brown and Martin Lake Power Plants and our other generation facilities and look forward to proving this in court.”

The company contends that the complaint has not been unsealed, but appears to be playing a game of semantics, saying, “The DOJ simply filed a version of its complaint with information that we agree can be public.”

This prime example of Texas business just leaves us out in the cold.

Read Full Post »

A few months after the deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, President Obama signed an executive order aimed at increasing safety and oversight at chemical plants across the country. We challenge the state of Texas to go further over the interim session to insure communities have the information they need for their Local Emergency Planning Commissions (LEPCs) to develop adequate plans for dealing with accidents at chemical facilities located within their jurisdiction.

The executive order is included below:

EXECUTIVE ORDER

– – – – – – –

IMPROVING CHEMICAL FACILITY SAFETY AND SECURITY

 

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Purpose. Chemicals, and the facilities where they are manufactured, stored, distributed, and used, are essential to today’s economy. Past and recent tragedies have reminded us, however, that the handling and storage of chemicals are not without risk. The Federal Government has developed and implemented numerous programs aimed at reducing the safety risks and security risks associated with hazardous chemicals. However, additional measures can be taken by executive departments and agencies (agencies) with regulatory authority to further improve chemical facility safety and security in coordination with owners and operators.

Sec. 2. Establishment of the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group. (a) There is established a Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group (Working Group) co-chaired by the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Secretary of Labor or their designated representatives at the Assistant Secretary level or higher. In addition, the Working Group shall consist of the head of each of the following agencies or their designated representatives at the Assistant Secretary level or higher:

(i) the Department of Justice;

(ii) the Department of Agriculture; and

(iii) the Department of Transportation.

(b) In carrying out its responsibilities under this order, the Working Group shall consult with representatives from:

(i) the Council on Environmental Quality;

(ii) the National Security Staff;

(iii) the Domestic Policy Council;

(iv) the Office of Science and Technology Policy;

(v) the Office of Management and Budget (OMB);

(vi) the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs; and

(vii) such other agencies and offices as the President may designate.

(c) The Working Group shall meet no less than quarterly to discuss the status of efforts to implement this order. The Working Group is encouraged to invite other affected agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to attend these meetings as appropriate. Additionally, the Working Group shall provide, within 270 days of the date of this order, a status report to the President through the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

Sec. 3. Improving Operational Coordination with State, Local, and Tribal Partners. (a) Within 135 days of the date of this order, the Working Group shall develop a plan to support and further enable efforts by State regulators, State, local, and tribal emergency responders, chemical facility owners and operators, and local and tribal communities to work together to improve chemical facility safety and security. In developing this plan, the Working Group shall:

(i) identify ways to improve coordination among the Federal Government, first responders, and State, local, and tribal entities;

(ii) take into account the capabilities, limitations, and needs of the first responder community;

(iii) identify ways to ensure that State homeland security advisors, State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs), Tribal Emergency Response Commissions (TERCs), Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs), Tribal Emergency Planning Committees (TEPCs), State regulators, and first responders have ready access to key information in a useable format, including by thoroughly reviewing categories of chemicals for which information is provided to first responders and the manner in which it is made available, so as to prevent, prepare for, and respond to chemical incidents;

(iv) identify areas, in collaboration with State, local, and tribal governments and private sector partners, where joint collaborative programs can be developed or enhanced, including by better integrating existing authorities, jurisdictional responsibilities, and regulatory programs in order to achieve a more comprehensive engagement on chemical risk management;

(v) identify opportunities and mechanisms to improve response procedures and to enhance information sharing and collaborative planning between chemical facility owners and operators, TEPCs, LEPCs, and first responders;

(vi) working with the National Response Team (NRT) and Regional Response Teams (RRTs), identify means for Federal technical assistance to support developing, implementing, exercising, and revising State, local, and tribal emergency contingency plans, including improved training; and

(vii) examine opportunities to improve public access to information about chemical facility risks consistent with national security needs and appropriate protection of confidential business information.

(b) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Attorney General, through the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), shall assess the feasibility of sharing data related to the storage of explosive materials with SERCs, TEPCs, and LEPCs.

(c) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall assess the feasibility of sharing Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) data with SERCs, TEPCs, and LEPCs on a categorical basis.

Sec. 4. Enhanced Federal Coordination. In order to enhance Federal coordination regarding chemical facility safety and security:

(a) Within 45 days of the date of this order, the Working Group shall deploy a pilot program, involving the EPA, Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security, and any other appropriate agency, to validate best practices and to test innovative methods for Federal interagency collaboration regarding chemical facility safety and security. The pilot program shall operate in at least one region and shall integrate regional Federal, State, local, and tribal assets, where appropriate. The pilot program shall include innovative and effective methods of collecting, storing, and using facility information, stakeholder outreach, inspection planning, and, as appropriate, joint inspection efforts. The Working Group shall take into account the results of the pilot program in developing integrated standard operating procedures pursuant to subsection (b) of this section.

(b) Within 270 days of the date of this order, the Working Group shall create comprehensive and integrated standard operating procedures for a unified Federal approach for identifying and responding to risks in chemical facilities (including during pre-inspection, inspection execution, post-inspection, and post-accident investigation activities), incident reporting and response procedures, enforcement, and collection, storage, and use of facility information. This effort shall reflect best practices and shall include agency-to-agency referrals and joint inspection procedures where possible and appropriate, as well as consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on post-accident response activities.

(c) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Working Group shall consult with the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and determine what, if any, changes are required to existing memorandums of understanding (MOUs) and processes between EPA and CSB, ATF and CSB, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and CSB for timely and full disclosure of information. To the extent appropriate, the Working Group may develop a single model MOU with CSB in lieu of existing agreements.

Sec. 5. Enhanced Information Collection and Sharing. In order to enhance information collection by and sharing across agencies to support more informed decisionmaking, streamline reporting requirements, and reduce duplicative efforts:

(a) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Working Group shall develop an analysis, including recommendations, on the potential to improve information collection by and sharing between agencies to help identify chemical facilities which may not have provided all required information or may be non-compliant with Federal requirements to ensure chemical facility safety. This analysis should consider ongoing data-sharing efforts, other federally collected information, and chemical facility reporting among agencies (including information shared with State, local, and tribal governments).

(b) Within 180 days of the date of this order, the Working Group shall produce a proposal for a coordinated, flexible data-sharing process which can be utilized to track data submitted to agencies for federally regulated chemical facilities, including locations, chemicals, regulated entities, previous infractions, and other relevant information. The proposal shall allow for the sharing of information with and by State, local, and tribal entities where possible, consistent with section 3 of this order, and shall address computer-based and non-computer-based means for improving the process in the short-term, if they exist.

(c) Within 180 days of the date of this order, the Working Group shall identify and recommend possible changes to streamline and otherwise improve data collection to meet the needs of the public and Federal, State, local, and tribal agencies (including those charged with protecting workers and the public), consistent with the Paperwork Reduction Act and other relevant authorities, including opportunities to lessen the reporting burden on regulated industries. To the extent feasible, efforts shall minimize the duplicative collection of information while ensuring that pertinent information is shared with all key entities.

Sec. 6. Policy, Regulation, and Standards Modernization. (a) In order to enhance safety and security in chemical facilities by modernizing key policies, regulations, and standards, the Working Group shall:

(i) within 90 days of the date of this order, develop options for improved chemical facility safety and security that identifies improvements to existing risk management practices through agency programs,

(ii) within 90 days of developing the options described in subsection (a)(i) of this section, engage key stakeholders to discuss the options and other means to improve chemical risk management that may be available; and

(iii) within 90 days of completing the outreach and consultation effort described in subsection (a)(ii) of this section, develop a plan for implementing practical and effective improvements to chemical risk management identified pursuant to subsections (a)(i) and (ii) of this section.

(b) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Agriculture shall develop a list of potential regulatory and legislative proposals to improve the safe and secure storage, handling, and sale of ammonium nitrate and identify ways in which ammonium nitrate safety and security can be enhanced under existing authorities.

(c) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Administrator of EPA and the Secretary of Labor shall review the chemical hazards covered by the Risk Management Program (RMP) and the Process Safety Management Standard (PSM) and determine if the RMP or PSM can and should be expanded to address additional regulated substances and types of hazards. In addition, the EPA and the Department of Labor shall develop a plan, including a timeline and resource requirements, to expand, implement, and enforce the RMP and PSM in a manner that addresses the additional regulated substances and types of hazards.

(d) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall identify a list of chemicals, including poisons and reactive substances, that should be considered for addition to the CFATS Chemicals of Interest list.

(e) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Labor shall:

(i) identify any changes that need to be made in the retail and commercial grade exemptions in the PSM Standard; and

(ii) issue a Request for Information designed to identify issues related to modernization of the PSM Standard and related standards necessary to meet the goal of preventing major chemical accidents.

Sec. 7. Identification of Best Practices. The Working Group shall convene stakeholders, including chemical producers, chemical storage companies, agricultural supply companies, State and local regulators, chemical critical infrastructure owners and operators, first responders, labor organizations representing affected workers, environmental and community groups, and consensus standards organizations, in order to identify and share successes to date and best practices to reduce safety risks and security risks in the production and storage of potentially harmful chemicals, including through the use of safer alternatives, adoption of best practices, and potential public-private partnerships.

Sec. 8. General Provisions. (a) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law, including international trade obligations, and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(b) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) the authority granted by law to a department, agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) the functions of the Director of OMB relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

BARACK OBAMA

THE WHITE HOUSE,
August 1, 2013.

Read Full Post »