Potholes ahead: Congress adjourned last month without voting on a bill that would have smoothed the rollout of driverless vehicles across America — and angered consumer advocates — by failing to include minimum safety standards for the self-driving cars. Automakers and technology companies, which have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in driverless technology, will have to try again in a divided government, Reuters reports. Joann Muller of Axios offers some predictions for 2019, with this important takeaway: The technology still depends on public trust. Consider that in one Arizona city serving as a testing ground for Waymo, the company’s driverless cars frequently are attacked by residents who say they don’t want them on the roads. Tires have been slashed, Waymo employees have been threatened, and it seems to be the company’s practice not to pursue charges, Simon Romero of The New York Times reports. One couple said their 10-year-old son was almost struck by a driveless car while playing in a cul-de-sac. They were unapologetic in their efforts to stop the vehicles, quite literally, from driving in their neighborhood. The boy’s father, Erik O’Polka, was issued a police warning in November after repeated reports of his Jeep Wrangler acting aggressively toward a Waymo vehicle, including driving at one head-on until it stopped. “They said they need real-world examples, but I don’t want to be their real-world mistake,” O’Polka said.
- Also: Makers of autonomous vehicles announced a coalition aimed at lobbying policymakers and building public trust, Jake Holmes at CNET reports.
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At school, on lockdown: The Washington Post has taken a comprehensive look at school lockdowns and the toll they take on students’ emotional well-being. School shootings are still rare in the U.S., even after the violence of 2018. Yet reporters Steven Rich and John Woodrow Cox counted more than 6,200 lockdowns in the school year that ended last spring, calling them “a byproduct of this country’s inability to curb its gun violence epidemic.” The lockdowns they tallied affected more than 4 million students, including more than 1 million elementary-age children. “There was once a time where we could say schools are the safest place for a child to be, and they would agree,” psychiatrist Steven Berkowitz said. “They wouldn’t now, even though it’s still true. The perception of safety is no longer there.”
- Also: Eight years after U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot at a constituent event in Tuscon, she plans to help Democrats introduce a bill that would require a background check on anyone purchasing a firearm, including online or at gun shows, with few exceptions.
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The shutdown rolls on: National parks are feeling the effects of the second-longest government shutdown, with numerous reports of unauthorized use of the parks and the build-up of trash, human waste and, in some locations, snow. The Washington Post reported that the Park Service will take the unprecedented step of using entrance fee income to maintain some basic operations during the shutdown, a move that critics say may be illegal because those fees are meant to enhance visitor experience, not to support basic operations. The New York Times has a comprehensive look at how other parts of the government have been affected, including a dramatic slowdown in financial enforcement, with investigations at the Securities and Exchange Commission having “ground to a halt.” The shutdown has affected about 800,000 federal workers, many of whom will go without paychecks this week for the first time.
Real-world impact of rollbacks: The Trump administration has blocked or unraveled dozens of environmental protections created under President Obama. A team of reporters at The New York Times look at what that means for four communities. In Bakersfield, California, agriculture workers are overcome by chlorpyrifos, a powerful pesticide that was set to be banned. Coal-burning power plants in Texas that have benefited from the rollbacks pump out pollutants that worsen respiratory illnesses and blanket national forests and wildlife areas in a haze. Clean water regulations helped a West Virginia river and its surrounding communities begin to recover from decades of pollution, but now those efforts are being reversed. A dramatic spike in oil production in Fort Berthold, North Dakota, has left people living on or near Indian and federal lands exposed to toxins from billions of cubic feet of methane gas burned improperly each month.
- Also: A land swap brokered by former Interior secretary Ryan Zinke and with President Trump’s approval will allow a road to be constructed in Alaska through one of the wildest areas on Earth, despite warnings from the department’s own scientists, Jane Kay reports for Reveal.
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Climate probe moves forward: The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear a bid by ExxonMobil to block an investigation by the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey into how much the oil giant knew – and when – about its products’ role in warming the planet. Healey began the investigation under state consumer protection law after journalists from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 that scientists for the company had been warning executives for decades about the climate effects of fossil fuels, even as the company publicly denied the existence of climate change. Her office has requested 40 years of internal documents on the matter. The company sued Healey’s office to stop the investigation, but a state court dismissed the lawsuit, a decision ExxonMobil had hoped to appeal to the high court. A separate case filed by the company against Healey’s office also was dismissed in federal court, and ExxonMobil is appealing to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Martin Finucane of The Boston Globe reports.
- Also: Nicholas Kusnetz of InsideClimate News looks back at lawsuits alleging that fossil fuel companies and, in some cases, the governments that regulate them, knowingly harmed the environment and undermined human rights.
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Deaths on the job, a tally: People who fish for a living remain at highest risk of dying on the job in the U.S. According to new federal statistics, 24/7 Wall Street reports, in 2017 there were 100 deaths in fishing for every 100,000 workers in the industry and, not surprisingly, drowning was the biggest risk. Other jobs that made the top five most fatal list: logging, aircraft pilots and flight engineers; roofers; trash and recycling collectors.
- Also: Two roofing companies–Aspen Contracting of Missouri and subcontractor J Cuellar of Wisconsin–have been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for failing to protect workers from fall hazards at a Colorado construction site. They face penalties totaling $147,998 –– United Parcel Service faces proposed penalties of $208,603 for failing to maintain exits that are well marked and free of obstruction at its Sharonville, Ohio, distribution center. –– Colorado company ContractOne was ordered to pay $57,463 after a worker was killed while installing water lines at a residential construction site when a trench collapsed. –– Missouri company Western Waterproofing Co. faces penalties of $155,204, and two construction bosses have been indicted on assault charges, for their role in a crane collapses at a luxury residential building in New York that seriously injured two workers.
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Underpaid: The owners of the China Palace restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska, have been ordered by a court to pay $145,987 in back wages and damages to eight employees after investigators found that the employees were not paid the federal minimum wage and were not paid overtime when they worked more than 40 hours. The Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against Miao Hui Zhang and Jian Zhang after they were cited for the violations and failed to make changes to comply with the law.
- Also: A federal court has ordered Reynolds Baldwin III of Spring Hill, Tennessee, which did business as Copperhead Construction and Sara-Tech, to pay $501,000 in back wages and damages to 82 employees for failing to pay overtime and for altering records of time worked. –– A federal court has ordered Woodlands Indian Vegetarian Cuisine restaurant in Nashville to pay $220,000 in back pay and damages to 31 employees after investigators found some workers were paid a flat salary that resulted in an hourly rate that was less than the federal minimum wage and did not include overtime.
At Mother Nature’s mercy: The ocean cleanup system that’s attempting to vacuum up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has faced, perhaps not surprisingly, some hiccups. A 60-foot section has broken off and some plastic the system captured managed to escape. Inventor Boyan Slat is unfazed. “Considering the things we have been able to prove in the past few months and considering the problems that we have faced, they seem quite solvable,” he told NPR. “I’m confident that the team will be able to design appropriate solutions for this and that we’ll have the system back in the patch in a few months from now.”
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.