Report Workplace Hazards, Face Deportation

Blowback: A construction worker tried to warn managers at King Company, a New Orleans construction firm, about dangerous conditions at a Hard Rock Hotel under construction before the building partially collapsed in October, killing three, Lauren Zanolli reports for The Guardian. Delmer Joel Ramírez Palma, a Honduran citizen who was at the site when the accident occurred, survived falling from the ninth floor to the sixth but suffered serious injuries; a few days after the accident, he was arrested by immigration officials and faces deportation. Although Mary Yanik, a senior staff attorney at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, said the group can’t prove the arrest was connected to the accident, “the timing is highly suspicious.” “I don’t believe in coincidences,” Homero López Jr., a Tulane University law professor who is representing Palma, told The Washington Post. “It definitely looks like they’re targeting him.” Deporting undocumented workers for reporting safety hazards will hinder the current investigation, and discourage other workers from coming forward in the future. “It is contrary to seeking justice,” said Daryl Gray, another  lawyer representing Palma and four other workers in a civil suit against the building developers. “One agency is investigating this tragic collapse and then another government agency is moving material witnesses out of the country,”  he complained. Although 700 people signed a petition asking OSHA to intervene in an effort to halt the deportation, it’s unclear if their appeal will succeed.

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Criminally distracted: A driver in New Jersey who ran down a pedestrian while texting has been found guilty of vehicular homicide in what is thought to be the first application of a 2012 state law that treats distracted driving with the same seriousness as drunken driving, Nate Schweber and Tracey Tully report for The New York Times. A lawyer for the driver, Alexandra Mansonet, said “It’s going to be very difficult for her to deal with the fact that at sentencing she could be incarcerated for something we are all guilty of doing on a daily basis.” But the fact that it’s so common is precisely the problem. Roughly 10 percent of fatal crashes between 2013 and 2017 involved distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those, 14 percent were linked to cellphone use. “This is a tragedy in every respect,” prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni said. “Texting while driving puts drivers and pedestrians in grave danger and we are hopeful that the jury’s verdict will reinforce the public’s awareness of this risk.”

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Clash of the auto titans:  General Motors has sued rival car maker Fiat Chrysler, accusing the company of bribing United Auto Workers officials to gain a competitive advantage by getting the union to soften wage demands, according to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Last Wednesday, the day the suit was filed,  union president Gary Jones resigned after the UAW board accused him of submitting false expense reports and hiding the misconduct. Both events stem from a long-running Justice Department investigation into alleged skulduggery at the union and Fiat Chrysler, including charges that union and company officials siphoned millions of dollars earmarked for a training center to spend it on Rolex watches, a Ferrari, personal travel, expensive meals and home renovations. The GM lawsuit claims that as a result of such  machinations, Fiat Chrysler currently enjoys an $8 hourly labor cost advantage over GM. Although two Fiat Chrysler officials and the widow of a third have pleaded guilty in the federal investigation, current Fiat Chrysler officials said they were ”astonished” by GM’s lawsuit, which they called ”meritless.”

  • Also: California state agencies will boycott the car companies, including both GM and Fiat Chrysler and Toyota, that have sided with the Trump administration in the showdown over the state’s authority to impose stronger limits on tailpipe emissions, Tony Barboza reports for the Los Angeles Times. In July, California reached a deal with four major automakers–Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW– to meet tougher mileage standards than sought by the Trump administration. Administration officials have worked tirelessly to prevent that from happening, including recruiting other automakers to side against the state. “Carmakers that have chosen to be on the wrong side of history will be on the losing end of California’s buying power,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

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Toxic sites at risk: Sixty percent of Superfund hazardous waste sites are vulnerable to sea level rise, wildfires, flooding, and other risks associated with climate change, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The GAO  urged the Environmental Protection Agency, which runs the Superfund cleanup program, to take climate change into account when making site-specific management decisions. As Phil McKenna writes for InsideClimate News, that would be a departure from current EPA policy. Officials in six of the EPA’s 10 geographic regions said they do not use climate change projections for flooding or rainfall in assessing needs at Superfund sites. If the sites are inundated after a flood and managers take no steps to mitigate those risks, it’s more likely that toxic substances will spread.

  • Also: The EPA has weakened rules on how companies can store dangerous chemicals, Juliet Eilperin reports for The Washington Post. The rules were developed during the Obama administration after an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people, including 12 volunteer firefighters. Although arson was found to be the cause, unsafely stored fertilizers made the blast particularly lethal. Under the relaxed rules, companies will no longer have to disclose to the public what types of chemicals are stored on their premises, or take certain preventive measures. An editorial in the Waco Tribune-Herald excoriated the move: “In justifying the decision while very obviously bowing to the deep-pocketed chemical industry lobbyists in whose ranks he once toiled, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said the EPA is taking this action partially in deference to first responders. Talk about fake news,” the editorial continued. Many first responders “have actually pressed for more information and more coordination involving businesses with volatile chemical stockpiles, something the Obama rule sought to address.”

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Indoor peril: Worldwide some three billion people cook on open fires or highly polluting indoor stoves, resulting in about four million premature deaths per year, the World Health Organization has estimated. Nita Bhalla writes for the Thompson Reuters Foundation that the charcoal  and wood fires produce high levels of carbon monoxide, which is deadly in enclosed spaces, yet investment in providing clean cooking fuels to the global population has lagged. “The level of funding in the sector falls far short of sufficiently matching the global magnitude of this challenge,” Dymphna van der Lans, the CEO of the nonprofit Clean Cooking Alliance, told Bhalla. The total investment in clean cooking was $40 million in 2017; the Alliance estimates $4 billion annually is required to make universal access to cleaner cooking fuels a reality by 2030.

  • Also: Plastic waste that Americans optimistically deposit in their recycling bins often ends up in far-flung corners of the world, including in an Indonesian village where tofu makers burn a mix of toxic plastic waste and paper to fuel their kitchens, Richard C. Paddock writes in The New York Times. When tested, chicken eggs from the village showed extremely high levels of hazardous chemicals including dioxin, which is known to cause cancer, birth defects, and Parkinson’s disease.

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Bumper to bumper: Studies have linked at least 48 infant suffocation deaths over nearly three decades to padded crib bumpers, but a divided U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has failed to take action, Todd C. Frankel reports for The Washington Post. Frankel writes that some agency staff members have disputed the consensus of outside experts and advocacy groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, that the bumpers contributed to those deaths. That has stymied any action to ban the products.

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Dirty business: Monsanto has pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $10 million in fines for illegally storing and using a banned pesticide in Hawaii, Blaze Lovell reports for Honolulu Civil Beat. Monsanto sprayed the pesticide over two acres of fields and then sent workers out onto the land  seven days later, although federal rules specified waiting 31-days. The conviction is part of a larger probe of pesticide misuse in Hawaii that also involves other firms, including Syngenta and Terminix. In one alarming episode, 10 farm workers were hospitalized after Syngenta sent them onto a field 20 hours after applying chlorpyrifos, when the label says to wait at least 24 hours.

Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.

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