Seeking Sympathetic Allies to Slow the Push for Solar Energy, Utilities Have Cozied Up to the NAACP

Money and talking points: Since at least 2013, utilities have donated generously to local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) around the country, and then persuaded the groups to push back against proposed energy-efficiency legislation or slow the spread of solar power, Ivan Penn reports for The New York Times. In some cases, utilities convinced civil rights groups that if affluent homeowners installed solar panels and reduced their reliance on the electric grid, lower-income residents would bear the brunt of higher rates to maintain power lines, a fact energy experts dispute. In reality, critics say, many of the policies industry groups were advocating would actually hurt low-income communities of color the most in the long run. To put a stop to this trend, the national NAACP organization has published a report on the “Top 10 Manipulation Tactics of the Fossil Fuel Industry,” and sent national staff to state and local chapters to persuade them to fight for policies that reduce pollution and improve public health, even if it costs them donations.

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Pharma blues: Drug companies rang in the new year by raising prices on 457 name-brand drugs by an average of 5.1 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation, Tami Luhby reports for CNN. Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans want to tie annual price increases for certain drugs to the rate of inflation to keep price increases in check, but the legislation has stalled in Congress. Not all of the expected price increases have been announced, and some experts believe the companies are trying to deflect attention by spreading them out, as lawmakers and President Trump consider clamping down.

  • Also: Drug-resistant germs kill around 35,000 people in the United States each year, and sicken some 2.8 million, but many of the companies working on developing new antibiotics are folding or on the verge of folding, Andrew Jacobs reports for The New York Times. Major pharmaceutical companies have abandoned the expensive project of fighting superbugs, while smaller, newer players in the field are struggling to stay afloat. Antibiotics are prescribed less frequently and for shorter periods of time than treatments for chronic diseases, which make them particularly difficult to profit from.

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Worse to come: Hundreds of wildfires in Australia so far have claimed at least 25 lives and burned millions of acres of land. And with the Australian summer just beginning, officials warn that many of the fires will continue to burn for months longer, Bill Chappell reports for NPR. The Australian navy evacuated at least 1,000 tourists and residents from the fire-besieged town of Mallacoota on the Victoria coast in what local MP Darren Chester called an “unprecedented mass relocation of civilians.” A professor at the University of Sydney estimated that the fires have killed somewhere around 480 million animals since September in the state of New South Wales alone. Toxic smoke has blanketed major cities, such as Melbourne, which is more than 100 miles from the nearest fires. In response to the  emergency, Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his government’s climate policies, widely criticized as woefully weak, and urged residents to be “patient.” Many Australians have found the government’s response severely lacking. “The thing that strikes everyone about the present situation is the federal government’s disengagement and lethargy, to put it politely,” Bill Hare, director of the policy institute Climate Analytics, told The New York Times. “People are just bewildered.”

  • Also: The wildfires in Australia are so severe that they are creating their own weather systems, including lightning, which can cause new wildfires, Denise Chow writes for NBC News.

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Dangerous dressers: The Swedish furniture retailer Ikea has agreed to settle a wrongful death lawsuit by paying $46 million to the parents of Jozef Dudek, a Southern California toddler who in 2017 was crushed to death by a 70-pound Malm dresser, which was at the time under a safety recall because at least five other children had been killed in the same manner, Neil Vigdor reports for The New York Times. Four years ago, Ikea paid $50 million to three other families whose children had been killed by furniture that toppled over. The most recent lawsuit alleged that the company knew how dangerous the model was and failed to sufficiently alert parents and other customers. “If a 2-year-old can tip over a three-drawer dresser, you know there’s something wrong with that dresser,” a lawyer representing the family said. “There’s millions and millions of them in American homes.”

Dying on the job: According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5,250 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2018 (the most recent year for which there is data). It is the largest number since 2007, and represented a two percent increase over 2017. Nearly half of the additional deaths were in California, where 422 people died on the job in 2018, vs. 376 in 2017, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations. Transportation-related accidents accounted for more than 2,000 work-related deaths in the U.S. or nearly 40 percent the total. Beth Braverman reports for CNBC on the 10 most dangerous jobs in America.

  • Also: Mayco Manufacturing, a smelter that operates as Mayco Industries in Granite City, Illinois, has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  for 18 serious health violations, including exposing workers to unacceptable levels of arsenic and lead, as well as for machine, electrical and fall hazards. The company faces $223,148 in proposed penalties.—Last July, Kevin John Anderson, 58, an employee at a grain elevator in Arville, North Dakota, was buried under 15 feet of corn. It took two hours to free him, at which point he was declared dead. OSHA has cited  his employer, Columbia Grain International, for violating safety standards for grain bin operations and is seeking $190,000 in penalties.

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Half measures: Responding to the epidemic of teen vaping sweeping the country, the Food and Drug Administration has announced a ban  on flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes, including fruit and mint flavors. Based on the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, there are an estimated 5 million e-cigarette users in U.S. middle and high schools. But the order exempts menthol-flavored cartridge products, and allows continued sales of all flavors of refillable e-cig liquids used in tank vaping systems. Public health groups, who had sought a complete ban on flavored vaping products to discourage teen use, blasted the measure as a surrender to the tobacco industry and vape shops.

  • Also: Citing concern for worker health and wellness, the moving and storage giant U-Haul has announced that it won’t hire smokers or other nicotine users (including  e-cigarette users) in the 21 states where such policies are legal. Writing in The Atlantic, Amanda Mull observes that this is part of a larger trend of companies trying to exert control over workers’ bodies outside work hours, by doing things like tracking physical activity, weight, and sleep, and in some cases, tying compensation and benefits to their performance. “It’s bleak when anyone’s health is regarded as a malfunction in workplace machinery,” she writes, “but the problem becomes even worse when these expectations are foisted on the workers least equipped to fight back.” A U-Haul representative described the policy as “a responsible step in fostering a culture of wellness at U-Haul, with the goal of helping our team members on their health journey.”

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Starting with a bang, bang:  The new year began much like 2019—with plenty of gun violence. The New York Times’ Tim Arango compiled a grim tally of incidents across the country, including a Cleveland, Ohio, woman who was accidentally killed when her boyfriend fired off a few celebratory shots; a 61-year-old woman killed by a stray bullet in Houston, Texas, as she and her family set off fireworks; and a 14-year-old Des Moines, Iowa, boy who was shot and killed Wednesday morning. As of today, there have already been six mass shootings this year (four or more people killed or wounded), according to data compiled by The Gun Violence Archive, three of which took place on New Year’s Day.

  • Also: In 2019, there were 41 mass killings, defined as claiming at least 4 victims, more than in any other year dating back to at least the 1970s, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA TODAY and Northeastern University.

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

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