US UpdatePublished by MAC on 2006-02-20
20th February 2006
The US Senate has rejected - by one vote - the Asbestos Bill, presented last year in an attempt to "cap" corporate liabilities for one of the worst minerals-related diseases. Although the Bill may be re-presented later this year, it's more likely to have sunk without trace.
The proposal divided political parties, trade unions, veterans, and businesses, although the Democratic party, mineworkers and environmentalists largely opposed it.
The biggest public relations "guns" were aimed by suporters of the Bill, notably Dow Chemical. While flagrantly refusing to settle claims by victims of the Bhopal conflagration in India, Dow has doled out at least US$3.6 million to lobbyists to apply pressure in favour of the bill.
Some of the lesser-known victims of asbestosis - as well as lead and mercury poisoning -are those employed to clear up the appalling detritus from the Twin Towers disaster of September 11 2001. Eighteen months after the first suit mounted for compensation, many are now suffering from fatal - and preventable - diseases
Under the Bush regime, only 12 mining violations have attracted maximum fines (US$60,000), in contrast to six times this number during the previous half dozen years under Clinton.
It's also been revealed that International Coal was exposing its workers to illegal levels of coal dust, just weeks before its Sago mine became the site of the worst US coal disaster since 2001. The company was fined less than US$300 for this offence. Now, there are proposals to increase fines for mining companies which put their own employees at risk, though it's arguably too little and too late.
The Navajo (Dine) Nation has re-affirmed its opposition to uranium mining, however high the price rises.
In Kentucky, legislators are sitting on top of a bill designed to slow down the destructive practice of "mountaintop mining."
After a failure to push through legislation opening US public lands to mining, the Bush regime is working in a similar direction using slightly different tactics.
A legal challenge to a proposed tyre incinerator in the US state of Vermont could have repercussions elsewhere - particularly for cement manufacturers which are the largest single industrial burner of tyres. But, meanwhile the US government's EPA continues to endorse the practice.
Hanson, Saint-Gobain Hurt by U.S. Asbestos Upset, Dresdner Says
15th February 2006
Hanson Plc, the world's biggest supplier of sand and gravel for building, may be a less attractive takeover prospect after the U.S. Senate blocked a
proposed $140 billion fund for asbestos victims, said Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. Cie. de Saint-Gobain SA may also suffer.
The fund was blocked yesterday amid concern that the company-financed plan would cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The measure was intended to end asbestos lawsuits that have forced almost 80 businesses into bankruptcy, among them USG Corp., the world's largest wallboard maker.
``We remain unconvinced that an acquirer would be interested in buying/merging with Hanson, unless the asbestos liabilities were capped in law,'' London-based Dresdner analyst Darren Shaw wrote in a note. ``We continue to believe that the probability of asbestos reform becoming law in 2006 is extremely thin.''
The purchase of Aggregate Industries Plc by Holcim Ltd. of Switzerland last year demonstrates the likely appeal of Hanson to takeover, according to Shaw. The London-based company set aside $488 million to cover asbestos liabilities relating to Kaiser Cement Corp., bought in 1988, and Beazer Plc, acquired in 1991.
Shares of Hanson, whose U.S. asbestos claims are `its elephant in the room,'' according to Teather & Greenwood analyst David Taylor, slipped as much as 8.5 pence, or 1.2 percent, to 678 pence and traded at 683.5 pence as of 4:26 p.m. in London. Saint-Gobain, Europe's biggest distributor of building materials changed hands at 55.4 euros in Paris, down 1.3 percent.
The impact of yesterday's Senate failure is negative for both stocks, Shaw wrote in the note. Saint-Gobain, based near Paris, had 100,000 pending asbestos claims as of Dec. 31. Respiratory Illness
Asbestos, a heat-resistant material used in insulation, auto parts and construction products since the early 1900s, can cause respiratory illness and has been linked to a rare and particularly lethal form of cancer that can surface years after exposure.
Supporters of the fund yesterday fell one vote short of the required 60 votes to waive a budget rule barring legislation that increases government spending by $5 billion in any of four decades after 2016. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist held out a slim hope that the measure might be revived because of the absence of one senator, Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
``It is probably fair to assume that there are Senators who voted for last night's procedural vote who want further discussion but are ultimately against the bill,'' Shaw wrote.
Vets, Victims Lobby US Capitol before Asbestos Vote
by PlanetArk, USA, WASHINGTON
8th February 2006
Military veterans and victims of asbestos-related diseases fanned out in the US Capitol on Tuesday to plead for and against an asbestos compensation bill ahead of a Senate vote that aides said was too close to call.
For years, asbestos fibers were widely used for their insulating and fire-retardant capabilities, but they are linked to lung-scarring diseases, including cancer.
Hundreds of thousands of asbestos injury claims have been filed, helping push into bankruptcy some 70 US companies, including W.R. Grace & Co and USG Corp.
A sponsor of the controversial Senate measure, Arlen Specter, appealed to colleagues not to kill the bill to halt asbestos lawsuits and create a $140 billion fund for compensating asbestos victims. A key procedural vote in the Senate was set for 6 pm ET (2300 GMT).
"I think it is an unconscionable vote to vote no," Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, declared on the Senate floor.
Aides to senators on both sides of the issue declined to predict the outcome, saying it was too close to call. Because it is a procedural vote on whether to consider the bill, 60 yes votes are needed.
A handful of Democrats were expected to vote "yes," including Tom Carper of Delaware, who announced his intentions at mid-afternoon. Together with three Democratic co-sponsors of the bill and Wisconsin's Herb Kohl, who supported the measure in committee, that would make at least five potential Democratic supporters.
If all 55 Republicans in the Senate then voted "yes," the bill would have the 60 votes it needs to survive. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said on Monday at least five Republicans would vote against it.
Representatives of veterans' groups told reporters that they cannot sue their former employer - the federal government - over asbestos exposure that happened in military facilities. This, they said, was why they in particular needed a compensation fund.
"Veterans account for 25 percent of all current asbestos-related claims and have been waiting years in the court system for some sort of settlement," said Tom Zampieri, a member of the Blinded Veterans Association.
Elsewhere in the Capitol, victims of asbestos-related diseases said they had collected 150,000 signatures, including those of many veterans, against the bill. At a news conference organized by plaintiffs' lawyers, these victims said the fund was designed to write down the liabilities of big companies while discouraging victims from filing claims with complicated exposure requirements. "This bill is a bail-out for greedy, irresponsible corporations, and it's the ultimate insult to their victims, who will lose their right to sue for damages," said Paul Zygielbaum, who has mesothelioma, a lethal form of cancer.
Under the bill, co-sponsored by Specter and Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, asbestos victims would be paid from a fund financed by asbestos defendant companies and their insurers. In exchange, the companies would no longer have to face asbestos lawsuits in court. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, but it has divided lawmakers from both parties, split industry groups and struggled to gain momentum.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, wanted the Senate to consider the asbestos bill this week, but Reid, a Nevada Democrat, objected, forcing the procedural vote. If Specter and Leahy muster the necessary support, however, the bill could still face other procedural hurdles.
In the House of Representatives, a different approach is under consideration. The House bill would allow asbestos suits to go forward only if claimants meet certain medical criteria. Joan Claybrook, director of advocacy group Public Citizen, expected
the Senate bill to survive the Tuesday vote. "But whether the bill will pass is highly questionable," she said. "There are both Republicans and Democrats in favor and opposed."
Story by Susan Cornwell
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
Asbestos Bill Sets Off Partisan Attacks
by AP, WASHINGTON
6th February 2006
The subject was a sober one, and new to the Senate floor: Should the Senate vote on a bill that would set up a $140 billion fund for people sickened by asbestos exposure?
Within minutes, the exchange spiraled into familiar election-year territory with Democrats calling the legislation Republican payback to corporate lobbyists and GOP senators accusing the Democrats of obstructionism.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., objected to allowing a vote on the bill. He spoke only a few moments before uttering the name of disgraced influence peddler Jack Abramoff.
"Washington has been run by the lobbyists. The Jack Abramoff scandal is no surprise," Reid said in his opening remarks.
Corporations that without the bill might be required to pay billions in legal awards to victims should be "jumping with joy," Reid added. "They were able to buy their way into the Senate paying for a bunch of lobbyists."
"Slander!" responded Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the bill's sponsor, whose stewardship of the bill for more than two years helped it survive the committee process to become the first new legislation considered by the Senate this year.
"To accuse us of being the pawns of the lobbyists is _ is _ is beyond slander, beyond insult," Specter stammered. "It's beyond outrage."
The fireworks picked up the election-year session where Congress left it in December: with a hangover of partisanship, unfinished legislative business and bitter accusations of undue influence.
Hurricane Katrina and two Supreme Court nominations left Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., little time last year for the technical asbestos matter, so he promised it would be the first new bill considered by the Senate in 2006.
But the bill is off to a troubled start, even with backing from President Bush, Republican leaders, and Specter's personal appeal to more than 60 senators.
Under the measure, defendant companies and their insurers would contribute $140 billion to a trust fund that would compensate victims of asbestos exposure. A high priority of Bush's business allies, the measure also would halt all asbestos-related court cases and spare defendants crippling jury awards.
On the other side, a coalition of companies and unions has launched a muscular campaign against the measure, saying among other things that the fund wouldn't support the number of claims made against it. Democrats and several Republican senators also worry that taxpayers might have to pay the bill if claims drain the trust fund.
Several procedural hurdles stand in the way. The toughest is a test vote on Tuesday on whether to bring the bill up for a vote, a procedure that requires the support of 60 senators.
Even Specter isn't predicting success here. He made the argument that in forcing a test vote _ the way the Democrats did on the USA Patriot Act and judicial nominees _ Reid is acting on politics rather than the substance of the bill.
"What he's seeking to do is obstruct, and he's had a lot of practice at that," Specter said.
Also, Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is considering objecting on the grounds that the bill would violate budget rules. Specter says the fund would be wholly supported by private contributions, and no federal dollars.
For his part, Reid offered a hat-in-hand apology for casting aspersions on the motives of "my friend from Pennsylvania." As evidence of his high esteem for Specter, Reid offered a distinctly senatorial _ if backhanded _ compliment.
"I'm one of the few people around who have read his book," Reid said. "I enjoyed reading his book."
US Senate Kills Attempt to Rewrite Asbestos Bill
by PlanetArk, USA, WASHINGTON
10th February 2006
The US Senate on Thursday voted to kill an attempt to make major changes in legislation creating a $140 billion asbestos victims' compensation fund.
The Senate voted to table, or block, a proposed amendment unveiled earlier on Thursday by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn. It would have dropped the victims' compensation fund in the bill and instead allowed asbestos lawsuits only under strict medical criteria.
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
Ex-staffers return to Hill to lobby on asbestos fund
by Elana Schor, The Hill
7th February 2006
The Senate's long war over the proposed asbestos-litigation trust fund has given the lobbying industry its biggest contracts and busiest revolving door, bringing a virtual army of ex-leadership aides back to their former bosses' doorsteps.
The Fortune 500 corporations designated in the trust-fund bill's second tier, reserved for companies estimating more than $75 million in liability to injured workers, have dispatched more than 20 outside firms to promote the bill in addition to their in-house lobbying operations and the efforts of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Despite the overwhelming amount of time and money invested, however, the bill's fate is uncertain at best.
The biggest individual asbestos lobbying contract belongs to Mark Tipps, former chief of staff and longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Tipps was hired by Akin Gump to help manage its asbestos windfall, which includes $2.5 million in lobbying payments from one defendant corporation - Dow Chemical - as well as millions more from other defendants.
Tipps received close to $1.5 million for two years of work predominantly on asbestos, though lobbyists closely tracking the bill said he has not been active on the issue in recent months. Akin Gump partner Joel Jankowsky said the firm turned to Tipps because of his extensive courtroom experience.
"Our relationship with him was pretty long-standing, so when the asbestos thing came up, we turned to him because we knew him. He is a litigator and has experience on this stuff, and of course he knows Frist." said Jankowsky, who has been a leader in the firm's trust-fund work along with Smith W. Davis, a veteran of the office of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
The second-biggest individual asbestos contract went to Francine Rabinovitz, a California-based lawyer and frequent expert witness at asbestos bankruptcy trials. Dow Chemical has doled out $1.14 million to Rabinovitz since mid-2003.
The most active pro-trust-fund lobbying firm, however, is the Democratic shop Swidler Berlin, which has made more than $23 million representing the Asbestos Study Group (ASG), a business-backed coalition famous for its asbestos ad blitzes. Swidler Berlin's asbestos point men are Thurgood Marshall Jr., a former Senate leadership and Clinton White House staffer, and Brian Fitzgerald, a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The ASG has collected its share of GOP lobbyists as well, including a $680,000 contract with the now-defunct Alexander Strategy Group, which was forced to close its doors last month because of its entanglement with the ongoing criminal investigation into disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The Asbestos Alliance, an offshoot of NAM that uses Timmons & Co. for its lobbying activities, has added to ASG's efforts. Timmons's top asbestos lobbyist is Larry Harlow, an experienced Republican hand, but its team also includes former Democratic Senate aide Rich Tarplin.
On the opposite side of the table, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) has assembled a Democratic-lobbying dream team to help kill the bill. Patton Boggs's ATLA lobbyists have raked in more than $4 million since 2003 working on asbestos in addition to other class-action and tort-reform issues.
Patton Boggs's top ATLA lobbyists include Jonathan Yarowsky, a Clinton White House adviser who spent five years as the Senate Judiciary Committee's general counsel and leadership liaison, and Karen Marangi, a former Judiciary Committee counsel to ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy (Vt.).
ATLA did not return a call for comment.
Trial-law interests also have signed up their share of ex-aides to former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who engaged Frist in negotiations on the asbestos trust fund but ultimately could not reach a compromise. Andrea LaRue of the Nueva Vista Group, one of ATLA's most active asbestos lobbyists, is a former Daschle counsel and Democratic leadership liaison, and asbestos plaintiffs have also signed up ex-Daschle aides Rita Lewis and Richard Sullivan at the Washington Group.
The Coalition for Asbestos Reform, a group of smaller businesses that object to the asbestos bill's trust fund contribution formula, late last year assembled a bipartisan lobbying team of its own at Fleishman-Hillard. Paul Sweet, a former chief of staff to ex-Rep. Vic Fazio (R-Calif.) and John McCamman, a former chief of staff to Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), are the Coalition's Senate lobbyists.
Labor unions, usually a reliable Democratic constituency, are split between opponents that characterize the bill as a giveaway to employers and groups such as the United Auto Workers, which has thrown its million-dollar lobbying budget behind the bill in an effort to guarantee some compensation for workers sickened by asbestos.
Libby doctor lobbying Senate on asbestos bill
by Mary Clare Jalonick, WASHINGTON
2nd February 2006
A Libby doctor is in Washington this week lobbying senators on legislation that would compensate Libby-area residents sickened by asbestos.
Dr. Brad Black, director of Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease, is lobbying members to improve upon a Montana provision in a larger asbestos bill expected to hit the Senate floor next week. That language, authored by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., would pay sickened Libby residents up to $1.1 million each for asbestos-related diseases.
About 200 deaths and many more cases of asbestos-related disease have been blamed on asbestos contamination associated with Libby's vermiculite mine, which was operated by W.R. Grace & Co. and closed in 1990.
Black, along with Baucus and Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, is pushing the bill's authors to include a certain test to determine which Libby residents would be eligible for the compensation. The test, called the diffusion capacity test, measures the lungs' efficiency to pass oxygen into the bloodstream and helps diagnose victims of tremolite asbestos disease, which is commonly found in Libby.
Language requiring the test was not included when the committee approved the bill last May, with some members arguing that it could make the bill too expensive.
Black argues that without the test, 40 percent of those otherwise eligible for compensation would not receive payment.
''We have to use the best measures we can to make sure people in Libby are adequately compensated,'' he said Thursday.
Baucus said Thursday that it will be a ''serious lift'' to get the test into the final bill.
''We are in a major fight over this provision,'' he added. ''That's why it's important Dr. Black is here to explain why the circumstances in Libby are unique and why those folks need this extra test.''
Burns, a Republican, has said he will not support the asbestos bill unless the diffusion capacity test is included.
Matt Mackowiak, spokesman for Burns, said that Black will provide important medical documentation showing the need for the tests at his meetings with senators and their staffs. The doctor scheduled meetings with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.
9/11 aftermath: Health fears for victims of Ground Zero's deadly dust World Trade Centre rescue workers demand action over effects of toxic cloud
by Robin Shulman in New York, The Guadian
10th February 2006
In the days after September 11 2001, Tom Mazzola dug through the heap of burning detritus that was the World Trade Centre, looking for survivors. Finding safety gear seemed less important, and he did not consider the potential threat from the mixture of asbestos, lead, mercury, pulverised concrete, powdered glass and compounds from burning jet fuel.
But now Mr Mazzola, a volunteer emergency worker, is plagued by shortness of breath, headaches, joint pain, and the chronic "World Trade Centre cough". Last week he visited a clinic in upper Manhattan that screens 9/11 workers for health problems - motivated in part by the knowledge that some of those who breathed the hot black gravelly air alongside him have since died.
Timothy Keller, an emergency medical technician, died in June of heart disease complicated by bronchitis and emphysema. Another emergency worker, Felix Hernandez, died in October of respiratory ailments. And at the beginning of January a police detective, James Zadroga, died of what his family reported as black lung disease, with high levels of mercury in his blood and powdered glass in his body.
Their deaths and the illnesses of thousands of others suggest a broader health problem, according to medical and environmental experts. New York legislators have called on the federal government to appoint a health tsar to oversee testing and treatment.Grave concern
"Our grave concern right now is what we're seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg," said Donald Faeth, an emergency medical technician and a union representative for other sick workers. "There are people who died that day and didn't realise they died that day."
At the Mount Sinai Medical Centre in upper Manhattan, doctors are monitoring the health of about 16,000 workers exposed to the dust and debris from the towers. About half have problems ranging from persistent respiratory disease to sinus problems to stomach ailments, and many have multiple problems, according to Jacqueline Moline, an investigator in the programme.
"It's hard to know what to expect," Dr Moline said, adding that diseases could take years to develop. Her concerns start with cancer, but extend to potential effects on the heart and a variety of lung and respiratory problems. She advises screening exposed workers every 18 months for at least 20 years, but her programme is only funded until 2009.
She is also concerned that many of her sick patients have been denied compensation. Often workers cannot prove they were at Ground Zero or that their ailments are a direct result of exposure to contaminants there.
If health problems cause them to stop working they lose their salaries and health insurance, and some can no longer afford medication and treatment.
In the days that followed September 11, many of the estimated 50,000 workers at the site went without masks or wore flimsy ones, and used little other protective gear. A further 50,000 residents of lower Manhattan, along with 400,000 people working within a mile of the site, were also unprotected from billowing toxins rising from the rubble.
The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, Christie Whitman, assured New Yorkers their air was "safe to breathe". Several groups have since filed class action lawsuits against her and her agency, and last week a federal judge called her statements "conscience-shocking".
Even the EPA's own inspector general has criticised the agency's handling of the crisis. A 2003 report found that on the basis of early tests for asbestos, which had been reassuring, the EPA made misleading pronouncements about air quality. And the White House, the report said, removed cautionary language from the agency's press releases.
A further study by the US general accounting office in 2004 found that the federal government had taken no comprehensive actions to study the health effects of 9/11 pollution and "the full health impact of the attack is unknown".
David Worby, who has filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court on behalf of 6,000 workers, says he has identified 23 deaths among workers exposed to 9/11 contaminants. No official statistics exist to confirm his claims.
But last month two New York senators and more than a dozen members of Congress signed a letter calling the deaths of at least three workers "an ominous sign" and demanding a plan for long-term monitoring and care.Ailing workers
A group of ailing emergency workers, Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, held its first conference last month. One of those who attended was Bill Dahl, a former paramedic. "I remember the wind kicking up that night," he said in a telephone interview punctuated by his coughing. "It was like a little hurricane. Your eyes and your nose and your mouth would get caked with debris. Whenever you found water, you tried to wash your eyes out and rinse your mouth out. At one point the officer I was with had to be ordered home because his eyes started to bleed."
In the days that followed he was assigned to a hazardous materials unit. He said he had worked 14 - to 16-hour days to decontaminate other workers at the site, but he himself was not issued with an air-purifying respirator.
A week after September 11 Mr Dahl, who had prided himself on jogging eight miles a day, began to cough up grey mucus. He would often wake in the night wheezing, unable to breathe. In January 2002 he had his first full-blown asthma attack. He has since developed an extremely rare form of cancer, synovial sarcoma, in his throat.
He said the workers' compensation board had so far denied him benefits, suggesting his pulmonary problems could result from his cancer, or from a recent car accident, not necessarily from exposure to the World Trade Centre ruins. He plans to submit that his rare cancer itself resulted from 9/11.
These days he cannot walk or talk much without wheezing. And he can't help but wonder if the next death will be his own.
The twin towers contained thousands of computers, copy machines and fluorescent lights which released tiny particles of lead and mercury.
464,500 sq metres of painted surfaces;
560,000 sq metres of masonry;
650,000 sq metres of flooring;
56,000 sq metres of windows
came down as dust
Mine safety agency vows to raise fine amounts
by Reuters, WASHINGTON
16th February 2006
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Agency on Thursday said it would revise its penalties for safety violations, after a rash of coal mining accidents have brought attention to its decades-old fining system.
Congress sets a ceiling for fines on health and safety violations, currently at $60,000, and MSHA determines the exact amounts based on a formula set in 1982 that can result in charges as small as $60.After mine operators correct unsafe conditions through an appeals process, fines can often fall to zero.
MSHA did not spell out in a press release what the new fines would be, saying only that it intended to change the current formula for calculating them.
West Virginia lawmakers have introduced identical bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate calling for significant changes in the fining structure, including a mandatory minimum penalty of $10,000.
President George W. Bush has asked Congress to raise the maximum penalty to $220,000.
Pressure has mounted on reforming the method of fining since January, when an accident in the Sago mine in West Virginia trapped 13 miners underground for more than 40 hours, with only one miner found alive at the end of the ordeal.
In 2005 MSHA cited Sago for safety violations 208 times. But Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia said fines as little as $99 were issued for some "significant and substantial violations."Others have complained that the fines were too small to persuade the Sago mine to change its behavior.
Debbie Hamner, whose husband, George, died in Sago, told a mine safety panel February 13 that the federal government issued higher fines for Janet Jackson baring her breast at the 2004 Super Bowl than it did for the deaths of 13 Alabama miners in a 2001 accident.A study by USA Today found that the fine against that mine's operator, Jim Walter Resources, was reduced to $3,000 from $435,000.
Fines may not bring compliance
by Thomas Frank, USA TODAY
10th February 2006
Late in 2004, a federal inspector found trouble inside West Virginia's Sago Mine.
Levels of black-lung-causing coal dust were nearly 25% above the legal limit. Miners were "reasonably likely" to become permanently disabled, the inspector noted in a report that also cited the mine operator for moderate negligence.
The fine: $268.
The conditions that day aren't related to the disaster that killed 12 Sago miners last month, but the fine reflects what some former officials say is a system that makes safety violations trivially cheap.
"It's like fining you or me 25 cents for a speeding violation," says Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety adviser in the Clinton administration.
The $268 fine is equal to the price of 4 or 5 tons of coal.
"You can mine 4 tons of coal in a couple of minutes," Oppegard says. "It's cheaper to exceed the dust limits, expose a miner to black lung and pay the fine than it is to do the right thing."
The fine was calculated using a complicated formula that makes large penalties rare. The Labor Department has urged that tougher mining fines should be implemented. Such efforts have fallen short, says Steven Webber, who oversaw mining penalties for the federal government from 1999 to 2003.
"The fines are low, no question about it," Webber says. In 1976, after a Kentucky mine disaster killed 23 miners and three inspectors, a Senate report criticized fines as "generally too low" to encourage safety-law compliance.
When Congress rewrote mine-safety laws in 1977, fines barely changed. Lawmakers toughened coal mine inspections and required rescue teams at the mines.
The maximum fine stayed at $10,000 until 1993 when Congress raised it to $50,000. It's risen to $60,000 in recent years to account for inflation.
Maximum fines have been imposed in just 12 violations in the last five years, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration records. In the Clinton administration's last six years, maximum fines were levied following 72 violations, agency records show.
Mine-safety violations are measured on a 100-point scale. Negligence, potential harm, a mine's size and an operator's safety record are rated and added up. The more points, the higher the fine.
But as Congress has increased the fine for 100-point violations by $50,000, the mine-safety agency has made only minor changes to lesser penalties.
Most violations get 20 to 50 points. Fines for those violations have risen only 82% since 1993, when fines were first increased. That's far less than the 600% increase in maximum fines in the same period.
David Dye, the department's acting mine-safety chief, downplayed the significance of fines when he testified last month before a Senate panel reviewing mine safety. Closing part of a mine until violations are corrected is "even more powerful than citations," Dye said, because it can cost up to $150,000 per shift in lost coal production.
"That is a way that you can get the attention of an operator very quickly," Dye said. In 2005, his agency closed parts of the Sago Mine 18 times and fined it $25,817 for 198 safety violations, 95 of them serious.
Oppegard, the former mine-safety adviser, says closures aren't enough.
"There has to be enough of a fine to encourage compliance with the law," Oppegard says.
Webber, the former assessment chief, some inspectors "lowball" violations by underrating factors such as negligence or the number of miners potentially harmed. The more miners exposed to danger, the higher the fine.
A 2003 internal review by the mine-safety agency found that only 16% of violations in 2000-01 said more than one miner was exposed to hazardous conditions.
"That's extremely low and inappropriate," Oppegard says. "Most unsafe conditions in a mine would affect more than one person."
Navajo take a sovereign stand against latest uranium scramble
by Jerry Reynolds / Indian Country Today
13th February 2006
The global Cold War sparked the first uranium rush on Navajo land in the 1950s - and now a superheated global economy has threatened a third.
Nuclear industry management has discredited the idea that a uranium ''rush'' is on, noting that even as the per-pound price of uranium has climbed to $35 from just over $7 four years ago, the industry's wages and insurance costs are still much higher now than at the crest of the second national scramble for uranium, in the late 1970s. A highly placed uranium executive, quoted in a January Arizona Republic article, said the current intense activity - the newspaper reported that in 2005 alone, 700 mining claims have been filed and 100 test holes bored in the high desert of Arizona, the country's most uranium-rich state - won't qualify as a uranium rush by historical standards until prices reach $50 a pound.
On what they will call it when prices reach $500 a pound, no word. But one industry analyst, quoted on the Internet at www.stockinterview.com, states that it could happen. China, India and Japan are all competing for uranium as they count on nuclear fuel to power their so-far successful commitment to explosive economic growth on the Western model.
Considering its status as the planet's leading economic power, the United States is poorly positioned to compete for uranium. It hasn't added to its 103 nuclear plants since 1978, and uranium mining has been stagnant since a wave of bankruptcies closed out the second uranium rush in the 1980s.
Altogether, that means that as the United States prepares to establish a new generation of nuclear power plants, futures contracts will be signed for uranium supplies that are both scarce and in high demand, guaranteeing the kind of competition that has driven prices for other energy resources off the chart in recent years. Uranium, of course, is the heavy metal at the heart of nuclear power; one pound of uranium ''yellowcake'' produces the energy equivalent of many, many tons of coal - as many as 15 train car loads of coal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey as cited in the Arizona Republic.
And worthy of note here: That none of this information is the stuff of standard headlines should lead no one to conclude it's not happening as described. The headline seen around the world from President Bush's recent State of the Union address, after all, was that America has an oil addiction. By comparison, one of the remark's main intents - to prepare the ground policy-wise and grow public acceptance for a new chapter in U.S. nuclear power - passed almost unnoticed.
But the Navajo have been on notice for a long time. With extensive lands in the leading uranium states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the nation is at the epicenter of the current uranium scramble. Mindful of the health and environmental devastations visited on tribal members by the previous waves of uranium mining, the nation last year enacted the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act, banning uranium mining throughout its territories. More recently, President Joe Shirley Jr. issued an executive order forbidding conversation between tribal employees and energy industry representatives on the subject of uranium exploration.
But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has since dismissed arguments against a uranium mining project based on water quality and groundwater contamination, setting the table for mining the richest uranium vein in the nation on lands that border Navajo territory. Under the recent NRC ruling on a uranium mining application, such mining may also proceed on Navajo allotted land. Because groundwater flows obey no imposed borders, this is cause for continuing concern in a nation whose many victims of uranium exposure (cancer and kidney damage are the leading afflictions) have never been compensated and continue to suffer, according to community opinion, grass-roots activists and many observers within the environmental and health care communities.
In an interview that accompanied the Arizona Republic article in January, Shirley expressed confidence that Navajo opposition to uranium mining will not soften no matter how high uranium prices climb, and notwithstanding the many Navajo members unemployed by the closure of Black Mesa coal mine. (The announced cause of the closure was the cost of meeting environmental standards.) ''We're hurting for revenues, yes; we're hurting for jobs, but we're not going to get into something that has killed us and will continue to kill us,'' said Shirley.
Shirley and the nation have a history of commitment on the issue. In 2003, about midway through the long, complex and embattled legislative process that ultimately passed a national energy reform law, Shirley campaigned on Capitol Hill against a then-provision ''that invites uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.'' Part of the campaign was to distribute a book, ''If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans,'' among lawmakers and the media.
Bush Administration Details Billion-Dollar Plan for Public Land Sales
by Matthew Daly, Associated Press, WASHINGTON
13th February 2006
The Bush administration on Friday detailed its proposal to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forests and other public land to help pay for rural schools in 41 states.
The land sales, ranging from less than an acre to more than 1,000 acres, could total more than $1 billion and would be the largest sale of forest land in decades.
Western lawmakers immediately objected, saying the short-term gains would be offset by the permanent loss of public lands. Congress would have to approve the sales, and has rejected similar proposals in recent years.
Forest Service officials say the sales are needed to raise $800 million over the next five years to pay for schools and roads in rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management has said it also plans to sell federal lands to raise an estimated $250 million over five years.
Dave Alberswerth, a public lands expert with the The Wilderness Society environmental group called the plan a billion-dollar boondoggle to privatize treasured public lands to pay for "tax cuts to the rich."
"This is not going to be politically acceptable to most people," Alberswerth said.
But Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs forest policy, said the parcels to be sold are isolated, expensive to manage or no longer meet the needs of the national forest system. The administration expects to have to sell only about 200,000 of the 309,000 acres identified Friday to meet the $800 million goal, he said.
"These are not the crown jewels we are talking about," Rey said in an interview. The public can review the land parcels that are up for sale on the Forest Service's Web site, Rey said; Maps of just four national forests were posted as of Friday, but Rey said all the properties should be posted by month's end.
The public will have until late March to comment on the proposed sales.
"This is a reasonable proposal to take a small fraction of a percentage of national land which is the least necessary and use it for those in need and achieve an important overarching public purpose," Rey said.
The proposed sell-off would total less than half of 1 percent of the 193 million-acre national forest system. The money would be used for roads, schools and other needs in rural counties hurt by sharp declines in timber sales,in the wake of federal forest policy that restricts logging to protect endangered species such as the spotted owl.
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, which previously said it will sell another 125,000 acres, said BLM land to be sold would be identified at the local level.The lands are typically part of a checkerboard pattern of small parcels surrounded by suburban or urban areas, Interior officials say, and have been identified as holding little natural, historical, cultural or energy value.
BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said much of the land would be near urban areas with high market value. In recent years, the government has sold parcels for tens of millions of dollars in Nevada, for example, she said.
"Lands formerly remote are now abutting metro areas. That is certainly the case in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah," she said.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said that is precisely the reason the land should not be sold.
"Our hunters, anglers, campers and other recreational users benefit from -- and depend on -- access to public lands," Bingaman said. "In my view, selling public lands to pay down the deficit would be a shortsighted, ill-advised and irresponsible shift in federal land-management policy."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the plan "a terrible idea based on a misguided sense of priorities."
Not only is the administration proposing to sell off public lands to help finance the president's budget, the move also won't sufficiently fund the rural schools program, which has helped California and other states, Feinstein said. "I will do everything I can to defeat this effort," she said.
Nearly 500 parcels totaling more than 85,000 acres in California are identified for possible sale.
The proposal follows a failed move last year to allow the sale of public lands for mining. Western senators had criticized the idea, as well as a plan by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., to sell off 15 national parks.
(Associated Press Writer Jennifer Talhelm contributed to this story.)
Bill to slow mountaintop mining in Kentucky appears dead
by ROGER ALFORD, Associated Press, FRANKFORT, Ky
10th February 2006
Legislators from Kentucky's coal region are sitting on a bill that could significantly slow mountaintop removal mining by barring companies from pushing unearthed dirt and rock into valleys.
The bill has been stuck in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee for more than a month. Ranking members of the committee, including Chairman Jim Gooch, D-Providence, oppose the legislation and aren't allowing it to come up for a vote.
Environmentalists support the bill as a means to combat mountaintop removal coal mining, which they say takes such a heavy toll on nature that it should be banned.
In the procedure, mountaintops are removed with explosives and heavy equipment to expose coal seams. The excess dirt and rock unearthed in the process are dumped into valleys, destroying wildlife habitat and contaminating streams with sediment and acid discharge.
"The lawmakers from coal-mining areas have seen that it's not that much of a problem," said Gooch, who has received $2,700 in campaign contributions for the May primary election from coal operators.
State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said he has seen the destruction mountaintop removal coal mining causes.
"I was just absolutely appalled at what we're doing to eastern Kentucky in the name of boosting Kentucky's economy," Wayne said. "And so I've really turned passionate about the fact that we're destroying the mountains in the name of making money. And it's unconscionable."
Wayne said the bill would restrict mountaintop removal by banning the practice of filling valleys with discarded dirt and rock. Currently, the practice is regulated by the federal government, and has been the subject of lawsuits in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The Kentucky legislation, Wayne said, deserves a vote. He said he believes the coal industry, normally a major contributor to legislative elections, is exerting pressure to kill the bill.
"I think the coal industry probably has a stranglehold on the committee right now," Wayne said. "The coal industry distorts this issue significantly in terms of the damage that it does to our communities and human lives and the environment. And some of the members on the committee evidently go along with the coal industry."
Rep. W. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, a vice chairman of the natural resources committee, said he is offended that legislators from outside the coalfields are pushing the bill.
"We think we know best being from that region what needs to be done in that region," Hall said. "I don't stick my nose in Louisville's business and tell them what they should do in their city. And we're the same independent mountain people that feel like we know what's best for our region."
Hall said legislators from the area didn't sign onto the bill because it might hurt an industry important to the region's economy.
"I don't want to do anything that's going to be detrimental to properly mined coal," Hall said. "I'm not going to bite the hand that feeds me."
Members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an anti-mountaintop removal environmental group, are expected to visit the Capitol en masse on Feb. 20 to push for the bill.
Wayne said he doesn't see sponsoring a bill opposing mountaintop removal as overstepping his bounds.
"The fact of the matter is those mountains belong to all of us," he said. "It's important for us to realize that many of those local legislators are caught between the interests of the coal industry, saving jobs for their constituents, and trying to balance that against the ruining of their environment. And a lot of times they cannot step out and be leaders on this issue."
Vermont Sues Forest Firm over Tyre Burning Plan
by PlanetArk USA, BOSTON
10th February 2006
An air-quality dispute pitting Vermont against the world's largest forest products company escalated on Thursday when the state made a bid in court to stop the firm from burning scrap tyres as fuel to cut costs.
The lawsuit against International Paper Co and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation comes at a time when increasing numbers of US companies are burning tyres as fuel in the search for alternatives to costly oil.
"Protecting the quality of the air that the public is going to be breathing we regard as an imperative," Erick Titrud, Vermont's assistant attorney general, told Reuters.
Environmentalists and residents of Vermont, which boasts the cleanest air in the northeastern United States, fear northeasterly winds will blow toxins into the state from the tyres at the company's plant in Ticonderoga in neighboring New York.
Vermont Gov Jim Douglas has led a campaign for two years to stop the two-week trial planned for this year. Protesters have picketed near the plant. Vermont radio has broadcast a protest song to stop the test.
The lawsuit filed in New York state court argues that International Paper's test burn of tyres at its Ticonderoga mill near Vermont's border should not go forward without a full environmental review. A hearing was set for March 3.
The US Environmental Protection Agency considers industrial tyre-burning a largely efficient and safe way to reduce America's growing mountain of scrap automobile tyres and has backed International Paper's proposal.
But environmentalists and Vermont authorities are concerned about the risk posed by fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns - a fraction of the thickness of a human hair - which can cause disease and are tough to regulate.
The emissions are linked to premature deaths from heart and lung disease, chronic bronchitis and asthma.
The EPA began regulating those particles in 1997. But scientists say the standards should be tighter and that fine-particle emissions in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago often equal or exceed EPA limits. New York state is considering whether to issue International Paper (IP) a permit for the test.
International Paper has said scrubbers and other pollution controls installed in 1998 will catch dangerous toxins from its 30-year-old boiler at its Ticonderoga plant.
It estimates it will save $3.8 million a year in fuel bills by burning 72 tonnes of tyre-derived fuel - in the form of biscuit-sized chips - each day in the Ticonderoga oil boiler.
The governor's spokesman, Jason Gibbs, said Douglas wants International Paper to install an electrostatic precipitator, or ESP - a pollution control device that removes toxic fine particles. The company has said the device would cost up to $15 million and has no plan to install one for the two-week trial, which it expects could take place in May or June.
Story by Jason Szep
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE