Slow road on auto safety: For the fourth time since 2011, a government audit has found that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is failing in key oversight roles meant to reduce injuries and deaths on the nation’s roads. The latest report by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General found that the agency failed to properly oversee the massive recall of faulty Takata air bag inflators, and was slow to expand coverage of the recall to millions of defective air bags. The problematic inflators have been linked to at least 23 deaths worldwide, reports Dave Shepardson of Reuters. The audit found that the agency did not follow its own procedures, including monitoring low completion rates or taking action to improve them. In another indication of NHTSA’s reluctance to take action, Jeff Plungis writes in Consumer Reports that defect investigations by the agency fell to an all–time low last year.
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Giving driverless cars ‘a ride’: The NHTSA audit comes just as senators are weighing whether to attach a bill that would promote development of driverless vehicles to a must-pass spending measure. A group of transportation safety advocates sent lawmakers a letter last week saying such a move would be “ironic at best and lethal at worst.” They noted that the National Transportation Safety Board has several open investigations into crashes that could have a bearing on the law. They called on senators to hold off on a vote at least until the investigations are completed. The National Association of City Transportation Officials also sent a letter opposing the self-driving car measure, saying it would preempt state and local regulations and exempt manufacturers from existing safety standards covering conventional cars. Advocates released a poll that found that 69 percent of Americans are concerned about their safety when sharing the roads with driverless vehicles.
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The Endangered Species Act as we know it is endangered: Lawmakers have introduced more than two dozen changes to the Endangered Species Act in the past two weeks and the Trump Administration has proposed a vast overhaul of the 45-year-old law. The moves could make it much easier for logging, drilling and other activities to occur on lands where protected species live. According to The New York Times, the proposals include stripping protected status from the gray wolf in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes, and from a beetle that has long blocked oil companies from drilling. Other proposed changes would eliminate language that prohibits economic impact to be factored in when deciding whether a species should be protected. Proponents of the changes say the law is outdated and has become too skewed against landowner interests. Brian Resnick of Vox notes that the law has had broad public support and environmental advocates often rely on it to stop projects, such as coal mines, that would cause habitat loss. “Using short-term economic gain as a justification for not protecting endangered species is part of a pattern with this administration,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a press release. “Their repeated efforts to weaken science-based protections come straight off the wish lists of politically powerful industries like oil and gas extraction.”
- Also: Susie Neilson writes for Reveal about how investigations into agricultural insecticides, thought to threaten thousands of species protected by the Endangered Species Act, have halted under the Trump administration.
The attorney driving anti-union lawsuits: Noam Scheiber of The New York Times takes a look at a common variable in a string of lawsuits that could have far-reaching consequences for public-sector unions: conservative lawyer Jonathan F. Mitchell. Mitchell was a volunteer attorney for Trump’s transition team and has been nominated by the president to lead a federal agency that advises the government on how it can run more efficiently and fairly. The lawsuits, pending in seven states, could force public employee unions to refund fees paid by non-members. Scheiber writes, “Mr. Mitchell appears to be a driving force behind the anti-union litigation, suggesting a well-coordinated effort.”
Criminal charges in two worker deaths: A federal appeals court affirmed the criminal conviction of Fastrack Erectors in the death of a 22-year-old worker who fell about 30 feet from a 9-inch-wide steel girder during the construction of a warehouse in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2014. Eric Roach died in the hospital the next day. The company had not provided fall protection equipment for him or other workers, and a foreman working alongside them that day also lacked proper equipment. In a separate case, a construction company has pleaded guilty to manslaughter for the death of 44-year-old Juan Chonillo, who fell 29 stories off a high-rise tower in Manhattan. Prosecutors said the subcontractor, SSC High Rise Inc., failed to properly train workers on moving scaffolding, and Chonillo unhooked his harness while trying to release a jammed unit, the New York Daily News reports.
- Also: California job safety regulators have proposed $205,235 in penalties for cargo-handler SSA Pacific Inc., after the January death of 54-year-old stevedore Phillip Vargas at the Port of San Diego. This is the seventh time in a decade that a worker for the company or its parent, SSA Marine Inc., has been killed on the job, Eli Wolfe writes for FairWarning. –– The owner of Ketz Roofing in Wisconsin faces $48,777 in fines for exposing workers to fall hazards, his sixth violation in five years. –– Federal investigators cited Karrenbrock Excavating LLC of Missouri for allowing two employees to work in an unprotected trench while installing sewers and proposed penalties of $189,221.
Essure to be pulled from market: Calling it “a business decision” prompted by declining sales, Bayer said it will stop selling the Essure birth control device. The coils were meant to create scar tissue in the fallopian tubes, acting as permanent birth control. But they have been the subject of thousands of consumer complaints, including from women who said they migrated to other parts of their body, caused persistent pain and perforations, or triggered unusual allergies. The manufacturer said earlier this year that it had been served with lawsuits representing 16,000 patients, Laurie McGinley of The Washington Post reports. The U.S. has been the only country where Essure continued to be sold, to the dismay of patient advocates who say the product should have been banned long ago. In a press release, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb outlined regulatory action the agency has taken against Essure in recent years and said the FDA will continue to monitor adverse effects among patients.
More teens banned from tobacco purchases: Massachusetts is set to become the sixth state to ban the purchase of tobacco products by anyone under age 21. The proposal, which applies to cigarettes, cigars and vaping products, cleared the legislature last week and Gov. Charlie Baker has expressed support. Since 2005, towns and cities where more than half of Massachusetts residents live have passed ordinances setting 21 as the minimum age, Bob Salsberg of the Associated Press reports. The statewide measure set to become law also bans vaping at schools and public places, and prohibits the sale of tobacco and e-cigarettes in all pharmacies. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids notes that one aim in raising the age limit is to keep tobacco products out of schools, where younger teens often obtain them from older students. Maine’s law banning tobacco purchases by people under age 21 took effect this month. Gov. Paul LePage had vetoed the bill, but Maine lawmakers overrode the veto.
- Also: Dozens of leading public health organizations have called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban flavored tobacco products – a move that, as FairWarning has reported, some municipalities are making in the absence of federal action.
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Unlearned lessons from Lac-Mégantic: Five years have passed since runaway rail cars filled with crude oil barreled down a hill into the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, igniting a fiery explosion that killed 47 people. When it comes to train safety, not much – not enough, at least – has changed since then, according to rail safety advocates interviewed by Julia Page of CBC News. Tanker cars with dangerous cargo still park at the top of the steep hill above the town, she wrote. Incidents of runaway trains in Canada have increased 10 percent since 2013. Writing for The Century Foundation, Jordan Barab, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of labor, points to several incidents in the U.S. in recent years that “could be harbingers of worse to come.” He said officials have done little to improve safety here even as greater volumes of hazardous fuels are being moved by rail.
In climate court battles, one goes out, one comes in: A federal judge dismissed New York City’s case against five major oil companies, saying Congress and the president, not the courts, must address the effects of climate change. The city plans to appeal the decision, according to a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. New York’s case was the third, after cases filed by San Francisco and Oakland, to be dismissed in federal court. A day later, the city of Baltimore filed its own case against 26 fossil fuel companies. It filed in state court, where a legal scholar told InsideClimate News that plaintiffs may face better odds.
- Also: Although 43 Republican lawmakers are part of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, only four voted against a resolution denouncing, on economic grounds, the idea of a carbon tax. –– Meera Subramanian of InsideClimate News examined how drought is reshaping the landscape that ranchers rely on in North Dakota.
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Not much doing on PFAS: Remember the “public relations nightmare” that Trump administration officials feared would be triggered by the release of a report that said chemicals contaminating the drinking water of millions of Americans, called perfluoroalkyls, or PFAS, were more toxic than previously realized? It never happened, writes Emily Atkin for The New Republic. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., whose district includes the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base polluted by PFAS, and the city of Flint, grappling with its own water contamination scandal, said he sees two choices: “Deal with it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. I fear the impulse of the EPA so far has been to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.