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As Evidence Mounted on Miners’ Toxic Dust Exposures, Feds Did Nothing

An epidemic that could have been stopped: Howard Berkes of NPR has steadfastly documented the epidemic of severe black lung disease among coal miners in Appalachia. Now, in an investigation by NPR and Frontline, he and a team of reporters find that, not only did the federal government fail to adequately track the illnesses, but regulators had evidence for years that the epidemic was coming and did nothing to stop it. The reporters tell the stories of Greg Kelly and Danny Smith, suffering with a disease that more typically afflicts people with many more years in the mine than they had. “For decades, government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic mine dust exposures, the kind that can cause [progressive massive fibrosis, an advanced stage of black lung disease], as they were happening,” the NPR-Frontline team writes. “They knew that miners like Kelly and Smith were likely to become sick and die. They were urged to take specific and direct action to stop it. But they didn’t.” The story includes this remarkable admission from a former mine safety regulator: “We failed.” PBS will air a documentary called “Coal’s Deadly Dust” on Jan. 22.

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Whose rollback?: Car manufacturers were quick to say that President Trump’s plan to roll back vehicle emission standards went too far even for them. But an investigation by Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times found that the effort had plenty of corporate muscle behind it. Marathon Petroleum, the largest oil refiner in the U.S., partnered with oil industry groups and the powerful Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council to influence state and federal lawmakers and to organize a highly effective Facebook campaign. The main message was that the emissions standards were a relic of the past, America is awash in oil, and the rules would only limit consumer choice and hurt workers. It worked.

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Riding out of town: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted his resignation last week and said he will leave his post at the end of the year, amid intense scrutiny for alleged ethical violations, including using his cabinet position to push forward a Montana real estate deal that would benefit his family. Zinke has enraged conservationists by dramatically increasing allowances for oil and gas exploration on federal waters and lands. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report this month saying the department was systematically undermining or obstructing the work of its own researchers. Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, wrote in The Washington Post that Zinke’s legacy is marked by the effects of “an all-consuming energy-dominance agenda that irreparably violated President Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.'” Top on the list of Zinke’s possible replacements is Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist who has been instrumental in the department’s efforts to push oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to reduce wildlife protections more generally. Zinke had been expected to run for governor of Montana. The allegations against him may stop that ambition. Or, maybe not, notes Julie Turkewitz of The New York Times. After all, the former president of the Montana Senate, Bob Brown, said, Zinke has that “winning smile.”

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Plan of action on climate change: Diplomats from dozens of countries agreed to move forward with a set of rules for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But they stopped short of fully acknowledging the latest dire predictions from scientists about the pace of climate change and the urgency with which it must be addressed. The new rules are meant to put into action the Paris Agreement on climate change, from which President Trump has pledged to withdraw, John Sutter of CNN reports. The U.S. agreed to the new rulebook, which calls upon countries to advance plans to cut emissions before the next meeting in 2020, Brad Plumer reports for The New York Times. One draw for the U.S. was a clearer methodology for accounting for emissions cutbacks by economic competitors, specifically China and India.

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River at risk: The reservoirs that keep the Colorado River flowing, carrying water through periods of drought to millions of people living in the Southwest and irrigating as much as 15 percent of U.S. agricultural products, are shrinking fast. The seven states that depend on the Colorado River have been negotiating a plan to cut back usage, but they will miss an end-of-year deadline, with two states–Arizona and California–holding out. Now, federal officials have issued an ultimatum, reports Henry Brean of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The states must settle on a plan by Jan. 31 or the federal government will intervene. Eric Holthaus at Grist explains what’s at stake: “Decades of warming temperatures have finally forced a confrontation with an inescapable truth: There’s no longer enough water to go around.”

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A serious prevention problem: It’s been a bad year in nicotine use. Really bad. Another report, this one from the Monitoring the Future survey, found that rates of e-cigarette use among kids and teens skyrocketed in 2018. The percentage of high school seniors who say they vaped nicotine in the past month nearly doubled from a year earlier to 21 percent, and there was a similarly steep increase among 10th graders. The jump in vaping was the highest one-year spike of any kind in the 44 years that the survey has continuously tracked substance use among young people, reports Rob Stein of NPR. The increase translates to 1.3 million adolescents who started vaping in 2018, the researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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Next in line for chief of staff: Mick Mulvaney has been mentioned often in this column for his work overseeing–his critics would say undermining–the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Now Mulvaney is headed for a new role as President Trump’s chief of staff. White House officials told Politico reporters that Mulvaney has been openly lobbying for the job. One official said Mulvaney, the founder of the House Freedom Caucus, “would have given up a very valuable appendage to get that job.”

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Fewer antibiotics on the farm: Agricultural use of antibiotics that are essential for protecting human health dropped last year by about one-third, according to a new report from the U.S. Food and Drug administration. And the decline was 43 percent from rates in 2015, when usage of antibiotics for food-producing animals peaked. Meanwhile, a group of major food producers, including Hormel, Tyson, Smithfield, McDonald’s and Walmart, among others, have agreed to a statement of best practices for antibiotic stewardship.

Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.