More scrutiny for the NRA: An 18-month probe by Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee produced a 77-page report, provocatively titled: “The NRA and Russia: How a Tax-Exempt Organization Became a Foreign Asset.” The report accuses NRA officers, board members and donors of helping to facilitate Russia’s illegal influence campaign during the 2016 presidential race. The investigation could lead to the anti-gun control group being stripped of its non-profit status, Vox writes.
- Also: A story in The New York Times describes a meeting last week between Donald Trump and embattled NRA head Wayne LaPierre. Based on unnamed sources, Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni write that two things were discussed: Trump’s stance on gun control legislation and the NRA’s future support of the president.
Self-driving stumble: Some Tesla cars received a software update last week that included a new feature called “Smart Summon.” Billed as a sort of robot valet, it promises to spare you the hassle of walking to your car by having it leave its parking space and taxi to you while you wait. No sooner had the update launched than videos and photos about autonomous mishaps started popping up on social media, along with predictable tales of fender benders and near-misses. The Verge writes: “This weekend’s video bonanza is just the beginning — and they’re likely to shape some of the public’s perception of autonomous vehicles as janky and prone to mistakes.”
- Also: Analysts at Morgan Stanley cut their evaluation of Waymo, the driverless car division of Alphabet (aka, Google’s parent company), CNBC reports. “Over the past year, there have been a series of hurdles relating to the commercialization and advancement of autonomous driving technology,” analysts wrote. “Most notably, we underestimated how long safety drivers are likely to be present within cars and the timing of the rollout of autonomous rides-sharing services.” — A judge on Friday ruled that Tesla violated federal labor law by illegally threatening and retaliating against employees trying to unionize, The Washington Post reports. Tesla’s mercurial CEO Elon Musk was also cited for tweeting that employees who joined a union might have to give up company stock options.
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One doctor, 11,000 square miles: A beautifully written profile in The Washington Post tells how Ed Garner, a 68-year old cigarette-smoking doctor in West Texas alone serves patients over an area of 11,000 square miles, an illustration of so-called “medical deserts” in rural America. “The federal government now designates nearly 80 percent of rural America as ‘medically underserved,'” according to The Post. “It is home to 20 percent of the U.S. population but fewer than 10 percent of its doctors.” As the U.S. population ages, that ratio will only get worse.
Trump vs. California, the continuing saga: The Environmental Protection Agency accused California of exposing people to unhealthy air and polluted water, and suggested that the state’s federal funding could be at risk. In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom , the agency cited the homelessness crisis in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which has left “‘piles of human feces on the sidewalks and streets.” That’s an echo of remarks by the president himself last month, though it’s unclear if he intends to do anything about the very real homelessness crisis, or if he is simply taking the opportunity to criticize the liberal West Coast cities. The EPA’s letter comes weeks after the Trump Administration repealed Obama-era clean water rules.
- Also: Seventeen states, including California, are suing the Trump administration over its weakening of the Endangered Species Act. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the coalition of states was “coming out swinging” to stop the rollback. According to The Washington Post, Becerra has filed more than 60 challenges to actions by the administration, 30 involving environmental regulations.
Coal pollution, less is more: Reliance on coal to produce electricity is dropping, but pollution from the nation’s biggest coal-fired plants is going up. E&E News reports that nine of the top 10 emitters of sulfur dioxide increased their discharges in 2018, in some cases by double-digit percentages. One massive plant in East Texas “belched almost 56,200 tons of SO2, up 54% from 2017,” the story notes. Due to the current administration’s relaxed stance on limiting emissions, the power plants have been able to avert pollution controls sought during the Obama administration.
- Also: Six out of 12 jobs in the Bureau of Land Management’s national environmental review team will be transferred out of Washington, D.C. and into six states – Alaska, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. According to Politico, the move “could slow or undermine the approval of permits for oil and gas and renewable energy project developments.” One disgruntled BLM employee says: “It’s basically lopping the head off the animal… There will be nobody in the D.C. office to help guide the process.”
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Vaping illnesses linked to THC: We finally have a clue to the cause of the mysterious outbreak of lung injuries suffered by e-cigarette users. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report linking the illnesses to pre-filled cartridges containing THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis (the stuff that gets you high). Investigators interviewed 86 patients in Illinois and Wisconsin; 87 percent of them reported using THC cartridges in the three months before becoming ill, while 66 percent used an e-cigarette called “Dank Vapes.” The illness has struck more than 800 people in the United States. At least 14 have died. No single substance has been proven to cause the illnesses. Vitamin E acetate, an ingredient in THC mixtures, is one suspected culprit. NBC News tested a number of vaping products and found many to contain Vitamin E, as well as myclobutanil, described as “a fungicide that can transform into hydrogen cyanide when burned.” The CDC recommends “refraining from using e-cigarette, or vaping, products, particularly those containing THC.”
- Also: Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns resigned. Juul, overwhelmingly the most popular e-cigarette brand, owns about two-thirds of the market. Burns had apologized to parents for his company’s role in what health officials have described as a teen vaping epidemic. Juul’s new CEO will be K.C. Crosthwaite, a vice president of Altria Group, which owns both Phillip Morris USA, the top U.S. cigarette maker, and a 35 percent stake in Juul. — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee directed the state’s Department of Health to impose an emergency ban on the sale of ll flavored vaping products, including those with THC. Last month Michigan became the first state to ban sales of flavored e-cigarettes, as the city of San Francisco had done earlier in the summer. New York state has also banned most flavored e-cigarette products.
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More workers will get overtime: Good news for 1.2 million workers: the Department of Labor has updated its overtime rules. Now, nearly all workers making less than $35,568 must be paid time-and-a-half for every hour they work above 40 hours in a week. The ceiling had been $23,660 since 2004. But not everyone is overjoyed. The Obama administration had tried to raise the ceiling to $47,476–which would have extended coverage to millions more workers–but was blocked by a federal court in Texas.
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Child labor in The Big Easy: A restaurant in New Orleans has paid $55,288 in civil penalties for violating multiple child labor laws. The Jacques-Imo Café had employed a 13-year-old to work as late as 1:00 a.m. According to a Department of Labor press release, the child “suffered third-degree burns over more than a third of his body when he tripped and fell as he carried hot oil which he emptied from the kitchen’s deep fryer.”
- Also: In Minneapolis, 15 restaurants in the city’s “Eat Street District” will pay 162 employees $367,359 in back wages for violating overtime, minimum wage and record-keeping requirements. The offending restaurants included Rainbow Chinese Restaurant & Bar, Black Sheep Pizza, Salsa a La Salsa, Marissa’s Supermarket & Bakery, El Nuevo Mariachi, Eat Street Social, Los Maizales and Pancho Villa Minneapolis.
Plastics lobbying group loses another member: S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. became the latest big company to cut ties with the Plastics Industry Association, joining Coca-Cola and Pepsico who left the group in the summer, Newsweek writes. The lobbying group has been a vocal opponent of bans on plastic bags and other single-use plastic products, and has become a target for environmental activists. “This trend will only continue as more companies move away from plastics and toward systems of refill and reuse,” John Hocevar of Greenpeace USA told Newsweek.