Tuesday Briefing

Groundwater contamination from nitrates in fertilizer and manure threatens thousands in California. A study released today by University of California, Davis researchers said nearly 10 percent of the 2.6 million people living in some of the California Central Valley’s rural communities might be drinking nitrate-contaminated water. High nitrate levels in drinking water have been linked to thyroid cancer, skin rashes, hair loss, birth defects and “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal blood disorder in infants. While the report focused on California, nitrates in groundwater is a problem that plagues farming communities around the U.S. Food & Environment Reporting Network

Proposed rules for infotainment systems in car dashboards could encourage drivers to use more risky portable devices, automakers say. At a Washington hearing, industry representatives urged the government to deal with electronic driving distractions all at once, instead of introducing the proposals in phases. As FairWarning reported, federal transportation officials last month unveiled a first-ever set of proposed safety guidelines for built-in car infotainment systems. A second phase of the anti-driving distraction guidelines will focus on portable devices such as smartphones and GPS units, and a third on the use of voice controls. Further public hearings on the guidelines will take please this week in Chicago and Los Angeles. The Associated Press, Detroit Free Press

Trial begins in landmark Canadian class-action suit against tobacco industry. The case, being heard in a Montreal court, is considered the biggest class-action case in Canadian history, and marks the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada. It pits a group representing 1.8 million smokers in Quebec against the nation’s three biggest cigarette companies. The plaintiffs allege that Imperial Tobacco, JTI MacDonald and Rothmans Benson & Hedges did everything possible to encourage tobacco addiction. In their opening arguments, the companies said the public has known for decades that smoking can be harmful. CBC News

Consensus emerging that faulty natural gas wells, but not fracking, have led to cases of drilling-related water pollution. The conclusion by some energy companies, state regulators, academics and environmentalists that poorly sealed wells have been the culprit could diminish some of the resistance to the controversial drilling technique known as fracking, and perhaps open the door to more oil and gas production. One of the largest documented instances of water contamination occurred in Bradford County, Pa.—after wells had been drilled but before fracking took place. Fracking is a process that uses water, sand and chemicals to break up shale rocks and release gas. The Wall Street Journal

A little-known foundation in Ithaca, N.Y., helps fuel the anti-fracking movement. Since 2008, the Park Foundation has given groups and publications fighting shale drilling at least $2.8 million — key funding for drilling opponents, but far less than the sums energy industry groups spend to influence policy and public opinion. Still, the outsized influence of Park’s seed money has infuriated some in the drilling industry. The foundation’s grantees include Josh Fox, maker of the Oscar-nominated anti-drilling documentary “Gasland,” and Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor whose research first questioned the belief that gas is cleaner than coal. E&E Publishing

BP released from criminal probation related to a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers at its Texas City refinery. A Justice Department spokesman said the company has addressed the most serious safety deficiencies exposed by the accident and satisfied the terms of a 2010 felony plea agreement to settle charges that it failed to protect workers. As part of that settlement, BP agreed to pay $50.6 million and make substantive safety changes during its probation period, which ended Monday. The end of its probation closes one controversial chapter for BP, but the company is still negotiating more than 400 safety violations against its Texas City refinery separate from the criminal case. ProPublica

Federal authorities sue to reinstate employee who was fired after reporting safety problems at a Florida charter school. In its lawsuit, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration accuses the privately run Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Fla., of illegally firing the whisteblower in 2009. The agency said the dismissal came within a few months after the employee reported improperly placed extension cords and a lack of a sprinkler system in two school theaters. Without indicating the amount of money involved, the agency is asking for the employee to be returned to work with full back pay and benefits. OSHA, Herald-Tribune (Sarasota, Fla.)

Safety regulators find 16 violations at Alabama plant where worker was killed. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also is seeking $120,600 in fines against Stella-Jones Corp., a manufacturer of railroad ties. Officials launched their investigation at the company’s Warrior, Ala., plant in September after a worker was caught in a machine and crushed. OSHA accused Stella-Jones of a willful violation, the agency’s most serious offense, for allegedly failing to install guards on the moving parts of a boring machine. OSHA also put the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which mandates follow-up inspections of recalcitrant employers that endanger workers. OSHA

Federal regulators investigate stuck throttles in as many as 1.9 million Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started the probe last week and expanded it Monday to include cars from the 2001 through 2006 model years. The agency has received 14 complaints of Taurus sedans accelerating on their own, but it has no reports of crashes because of the problem. The issue is similar to one that tarnished Toyota Motor Corp.’s reputation two years ago. The Japanese automaker eventually recalled 14 million vehicles worldwide because of acceleration problems, which it has blamed on ill-fitting floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals. The Associated Press, Consumer Reports

Two crashes renew debate over seat belts for students on school buses. In the more serious crash Monday, in Indianapolis, the bus driver and one student were killed, while two other students were injured critically. The other accident, in central Washington, left all 39 students on board injured, three seriously. Neither vehicle was equipped with passenger seat belts. As FairWarning has reported, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year rejected a petition filed by medical groups and other advocates to require safety belts on school buses. NHTSA and bus manufacturers say the vehicles are safe, in part  because of their size, and that fatal accidents are rare. But the American Academy of Pediatrics wants new buses equipped with belts, contending that serious accidents occur too often.  ABC News, The Associated Press

Expert panel endorses resuming testing of experimental pain drugs. The advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration voted 21-0 to restart trials of the medications, known as anti-nerve growth factor, or anti-NGF, drugs. Testing was halted by the FDA in 2010 and early 2011 after some patients experienced what appeared to be the death of bone tissue in the joints, and required joint replacements. Members of the panel cited the need for new pain medications for people not helped by current drugs as a key factor in their decision. The drugs have been examined as potential treatments for common conditions such as low back pain and osteoarthritis, or damage to the joints caused by wear and tear. MyHealthNewsDaily, Reuters

Recalls: 2012 Buick Regal sedans, 2003-04 Infiniti M45 sedans, Guidecraft play theaters, Hydro-Gear lawn tractorsPublix Beef Stew Seasoning Mix

Compiled by Stuart Silverstein

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