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With Long Delays in Safety Overhaul, Utility Giant PG&E Was Playing With Fire

Faulty lines, fires sparked: Pacific Gas & Electric Co. acknowledged that its equipment likely started what became the most destructive fire in California’s history, burning nearly 14,000 homes last November and killing 85 people, the Los Angeles Times reports. The company has filed for bankruptcy protection and faces dozens of lawsuits from people who lost property or loved ones in the Camp Fire that ravaged Butte County. The company’s stock dropped last week after The Wall Street Journal reported that the utility told regulators in 2013 it planned a major safety overhaul of the high-voltage transmission line suspected to have sparked the fire. That work was delayed year after year. The company previously told regulators that it experienced equipment failures on the Caribou-Palermo line around the time that the fire started, Reuters reports. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that PG&E equipment was responsible for sparking at least 1,500 fires in California over about two and a half years, fueled also by historic droughts. Sheelah Kolhatkar of The New Yorker considers what it will mean for the broader economy if such a high-profile company goes under for reasons linked to climate change.

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Danger near the schoolyard: Within five years, 105 people were killed within a mile of Dymally High School in Los Angeles. One sophomore told the Los Angeles Times that the walk to school each day is “like a guessing game.” The South Los Angeles school has seen the greatest number of nearby fatalities of any public school in the country. But it’s hardly an outlier. Thirteen other public school campuses in Los Angeles County saw at least 50 homicides nearby in the same period. So much of the national conversation about gun violence and schools focuses on mass shootings. This report by Sonali Kholi and Iris Lee underscores the relentless trauma from gun violence that many students face day in and day out.

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Yummy: By now, the benefits of buying organic might be obvious in the produce aisle. Buying organic means less exposure to potentially harmful pesticides. Now the Environmental Working Group is drawing attention to the difference between conventional and organic packaged foods. Conventional items can use a vast array of synthetic preservatives, flavors and colors, some of them linked to known health risks, the group reports. Fewer than 40 synthetic substances are approved for use in organic products, and those are subject to review by regulators.

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Undocumented, at risk on the job: A Boston-based construction company illegally retaliated against a worker for filing a worker’s compensation claim by initiating an investigation of his immigration status that led to his arrest, the U.S. Department of Labor has alleged in a lawsuit against Tara Construction. Jose Martin Paz Flores was injured when he fell off a ladder in March 2017. He was undocumented at the time, and the company’s workers compensation insurance policy had been cancelled for nonpayment, WBUR reports. After Paz reported his injury, Tara CEO Pedro Pirez worked with a Boston police task force on immigration to have Paz arrested, even telling police when Paz would be at the construction offices so that he could be detained. An immigration advocate told reporter Shannon Dooling of WBUR that employers often leverage workers’ immigration status to dissuade them from making claims for workers compensation, which they are entitled to even if undocumented. “It’s a thread through so many of our conversations,” Diego Low of the Metrowest Worker Center said.

  • Also: Another coal company executive, Glendal “Buddy” Hardison, who managed western Kentucky mines for Armstrong Coal, has been indicted on charges of fraud for lying to regulators and cheating on tests meant to protect miners from breathable dust that causes black lung disease. –– Olin Landscaping of Florida faces penalties of $16,102 after an employee working outside last August on a day with a heat index between 97 and 103 died from heat-related symptoms.
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A garment license out of whole cloth: The California Attorney General has filed criminal charges against a group of people investigators say were running a scheme to provide fraudulent licenses to garment makers who were ineligible for licenses because of past labor violations, unpaid taxes or other reasons. The operation was led by Jong Min Ju, who is now at large, according to a press release. He worked with Irene Park, an employee of the Korean American Garment Industry Association, to obtain licenses for garment shops using the names of people who agreed to lend their identities in exchange for payment. The garment industry has had one of the highest rates of minimum wage and overtime violations in Southern California, where Ju was operating.

  • Also: GEO Group must pay $250,000 in back wages and damages and offer job opportunities to 22 women after investigators found the company discriminated against correctional officer applicants for positions at Joe Corley Detention Center in Texas. –– Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals of Georgia has paid $454,655 in back wages to 28 employees after investigators found the company violated overtime rules. –– The owner of The Chicken or The Egg in New Jersey must pay $768,548 to 23 employees for back wages and damages after investigators found the restaurant routinely recorded fewer hours than employees worked and failed to pay overtime.

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Auto fix for a deadly risk: The auto industry has long opposed regulations to prevent carbon monoxide deaths from keyless vehicles left running in an attached garage, but now General Motors is getting behind a measure before Congress that would require such vehicles to shut off automatically after a designated period of idling. Some car makers have begun introducing automatic shut-off functions on their own. GM, which has said it “supports the spirit” of the bill proposed by Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, has an auto shut-off in 31 of its 39 keyless models, David Jeans of The New York Times reports.

  • Also: Kia and Hyundai have expanded their recall of vehicles at risk of engine fires to include another 534,000 vehicles. The Center for Auto Safety has counted at least 300 engine fires among the affected models, and Reuters previously reported that prosecutors were investigating the automakers’ handling of the recall. –– More than 6,200 pedestrians were struck and killed by vehicles in 2018–the most in any year since 1990–according to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association.
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A new leader on the environment: He has moved to undo limits on emissions from power plants and automobiles, to make it easier to build new coal-fired generators, to roll back rules that protect people from toxic mercury emissions and to weaken clean water rules. Last week, Andrew Wheeler was confirmed to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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