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A Slow Burn Over Burn Pits

‘Our generation’s Agent Orange’: When New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer started covering the veterans affairs beat late last year, this was one of the first questions that popped up for her: “How was it that I had never heard of burn pits?” I had the same question last year as I sat on a friend’s couch listening to her husband and a friend talk about the massive burn pits–burning landfills, really–that they lived alongside during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many people who are suffering from pancreatic cancer and other illnesses they believe resulted from exposure. The issue is getting some attention in the new Congress. Since 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied thousands of disability claims citing at least one condition linked to burn pit exposure, citing insufficient evidence linking the illnesses to military service, Steinhauer writes. Tens of thousands of veterans have signed up for a national registry documenting their exposure to burn pits. Lawmakers have pledged to review the issue and to fund more research on possible health effects. “We are going to make a lot of noise this year,” Rep. Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat and co-chairman of the bipartisan House caucus on burn pits, told Steinhauer.

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Damage control for talc miner: A mining company that has supplied talc to Johnson & Johnson has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, facing more than 14,000 claims in U.S. courts from people who say their long time use of talc powders caused ovarian cancer or mesothelioma.  Imerys Talc America maintains that the cases are without merit, but that it is overwhelmed by the cost of defending the claims. Bankruptcy would allow the company to set up a trust to deal with cases, a team of Bloomberg reporters write. “It will also corral the cases under a single judge and allow Imerys to pressure plaintiffs to accept lower settlements,” they report. The filing could harm Johnson & Johnson by limiting the amount that Imerys can contribute to potential settlements, an analyst told Bloomberg.

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‘Since Parkland’: A year after a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, a reporting team lead by The Trace has documented the lives of 1,200 American children killed by guns since. “Since Parkland” is a feat of reporting by more then 200 students journalists, published in a format that is stark, elegant and heartbreaking. It makes this headline confounding: Support for gun control has actually waned over the past year. Emily Stewart of Vox writes that it’s a familiar trend. Support for stricter gun laws spikes after a mass shooting, then falls again. A national poll found that 71 percent of Americans said in the aftermath of Parkland that gun laws should be tightened. Now, that figure is down to 51 percent. Meanwhile, House Democrats have moved a plan out of committee to require background checks on nearly all gun sales.

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A future with less ice: For The Atlantic, Tatiana Schlossberg looks at how Maine is positioning itself in a world with less Arctic ice, where it could be a major port for the movement of goods across the Northwest Passage, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, tells her that, while he strongly supports efforts to curb climate change, he began learning more about declining Arctic ice and saw a new economic reality for his state. He co-chairs the Senate Arctic Caucus with Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Kate Olson, a sociologist studying climate change in Maine tweeted that the article felt wrong, and that the focus should remain on mitigating climate change, not banking on the Arctic’s demise. For a state whose economy and cultural traditions have been shaped by fisheries that could disappear and a logging industry threatened by global warming, adapting and mitigating climate effects both seem necessary.

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Out like a light: In 2007, President George W. Bush signed a law to phase in more efficient light bulbs, with the goal of cutting pollution and consumer electricity bills. Just before his term ended, President Obama’s administration expanded that program. Now, the Trump administration has proposed undoing that expansion and exempting certain lightbulbs, such as three-way bulbs and reflector bulbs used in recessed lighting, from the efficiency standards, Timothy Gardner of Reuters reports.

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Waiting for action on PFAS: The Environmental Protection Agency announced a long-awaited “action plan” for dealing with persistent manmade chemicals that have contaminated the drinking water supply for millions of Americans, but community organizers and environmental groups said the plan would do little to limit PFAS pollution any time soon. Used to make firefighting foam, and as waterproofing and nonstick coating for various products, the chemicals have leaked from industrial sites and military bases into groundwater. They are a suspected cause of cancers, reproductive problems and immune system disorders. The EPA has pledged to begin the process of setting drinking water limits for two of the most common chemicals, Brady Dennis of The Washington Post reports. It also plans to issue guidance for groundwater cleanup and launch more research on the health effects. The plan “perpetuates the agency’s record of foot-dragging,” the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, said in a press release. It would not stop the use of PFAS chemicals in consumer products or prevent the introduction of new chemicals in the class, the group said. It also does not mandate cleanup of contaminated water supplies. One community organizer in Pennsylvania asked acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler whether he would feel the government was working quickly enough if his children or  grandchildren were drinking contaminated water, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report. Wheeler said the agency is moving as fast as it can.

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A plastic packaging conundrum: Amazon has switched much of its bulky cardboard packaging for lighter mailers to fit more on every delivery truck and plane. While that may seem like an eco-conscious choice, the new mailers are made of a plastic that isn’t recyclable by most municipal curbside programs, Kristen Millares Young of The Washington Post reports. Those that do go into recycling bins can end up jamming sorting systems, requiring extra labor to get things unstuck. Still, one materials management analyst told her that the plastic packaging takes less petroleum to produce, ship and dispose of than the cardboard it replaces. Some efforts are underway to educate consumers about how to recycle the mailers properly, including a label with instructions.

  • Also: In a story about how to ditch plastic by Steven Kurutz of The New York Times is this bit of news: Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo are among some major corporations considering switching products to non-plastic packaging or even offering refillable containers. — Britain is considering taxing plastic packaging producers for the cost of dealing with their waste, Reuters reports.
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Guest worker violations: The owner of two horse training facilities in Northern California must pay nearly $1.3 million in back wages and damages to 30 employees after investigators found that the company violated terms of the H-2B temporary worker visa program by failing to meet pay standards, housing workers in substandard conditions, and taking kickbacks from the visa fees. EWC & Associates, operator of Portola Valley Training Center in Menlo Park and Gilroy Gaits in Hollister, also agreed to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and has been barred from participating in the visa program for one year, according to a Department of Labor press release. The company housed some workers in converted stables with no running potable water and deducted the cost of transportation to and from their home countries from their wages, in violation of program rules.

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Lobbyist leader: Continuing a pattern of putting people once paid to lobby for industries in charge of the agencies that regulate them, President Trump has said he will nominate David Bernhardt to lead the Interior Department. Coral Davenport of The New York Times reports that Bernhardt, since joining the Interior as a top official in 2017, has worked to eliminated Endangered Species Act protections for a tiny fish, the delta smelt – the same rules that California farmers previously paid him to oppose. Without those protections, farmers would be freer to use river water for irrigation as the state moves into a drier, hotter future. “Rerouting river water would also devastate the regional ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay Delta, scientists say, imperiling dozens of other fish up the food chain and affecting water birds, orcas and commercial fisheries and encouraging toxic algal blooms,” Davenport writes.

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