“From Poor Regulation To Terrorism”: Texas’ Wild West Approach To Protecting Public Health And Safety
You might think the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that leveled the town and killed 14 people would have given pause to those conservative policymakers and boosters in the Lone Star State who proudly boast of a “Texas Way” in which job-creators aren’t hassled by pointy-headed bureaucrats and regulators or income taxes or any of those other new-fangled socialist devices. But no: under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, we learn from a New York Times story today, Texas government and business officials are going out of their way to reiterate that this is a place where the Bidnessman walks tall, and poor living standards and high workplace risks are just the price of keeping job creators fat and happy.
Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.
But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs….
“The Wild West approach to protecting public health and safety is what you get when you give companies too much economic freedom and not enough responsibility and accountability,” said Thomas O. McGarity, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and an expert on regulation.
So I’d bet today’s news that Texas law enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation based on reports that federal agents found bomb-making materials in the possession of a paramedic who was on the scene in West is going to generate a lot of excitement in the state’s conservative circles. True, the suspect who was arrested by the ATF isn’t an Arab or even a Chechen, and no one knows at this point if he had anything to do with the explosion, and if so, what his motives might have been.
But Lord a-mercy, wouldn’t it be nice if it was a terrorist and not an industry or lawmakers or regulators we ought to be looking at in connection with this tragedy? The very possibility must be worth toasting in certain circles during today’s Texas happy hours.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 10, 2013
Here’s hoping that Stewart Parnell goes to prison.
The former president of the now-bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America, Parnell ran a filthy Georgia processing plant contaminated with salmonella that injured more than 600 people in a 2008-2009 outbreak, killing nine. Last month, federal prosecutors charged Parnell and three others with criminal offenses, claiming the executives intentionally shipped out contaminated peanut products.
It’s about time that white-collar criminals whose actions result in death or horrible injuries have to do the perp walk, just like the leeches who sell narcotics to kids. Former workers and federal inspectors say the plant, located in the small southeast Georgia town of Blakely, was a breeding ground for bacteria — with a leaky roof, dirty floors, mold on the ceiling and walls, and rats and roaches everywhere.
Still, it’s not enough to know that Parnell is finally going before the bar of justice. I also want a vigorous and assertive government that will help ensure that plants like Parnell’s Blakely facility won’t be free to operate in the future.
With President Obama battling Republicans over government spending, it’s easy to forget the important functions that federal agencies carry on every day. The Washington commentariat has concluded the agreement — known as “sequestration” — that produced shortsighted budget cuts hasn’t caused any harm to the majority of Americans, an indication, in that view, that Obama oversold the consequences of the cuts.
Is that true? The fact is we may never know how much harm will be done by those cuts. We don’t know how many children will miss their vaccinations, how many Head Start teachers will be laid off, or how many food inspections will be skipped.
The line between cause and effect is especially hard to draw in the work of those federal agencies whose jobs are aimed at prevention. The inspectors at the Food and Drug Administration have done their jobs well when you don’t hear of a food-borne illness or a faulty medical product. That sort of work is essential, but its results are hard to measure. And it never attracts public attention of the sort that ensures big budgets.
After the Blakely fiasco, Congress passed laws beefing up the powers given to the FDA. The agency used that new authority to shut down a New Mexico peanut processing plant that was implicated in a 2012 salmonella outbreak.
That decision came after the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (another federally funded agency) and state and local health departments tracked the outbreak to that specific plant, run by Sunland Inc. That outbreak sickened dozens.
I don’t know — and neither do you — whether the CDC will continue to have all the resources it needs to track deadly diseases with the across-the-board spending cuts dictated by GOP intransigence. I don’t know whether the Consumer Protection Agency will be able to track down all the lead-tinged toys coming in from China. I don’t know whether the FDA will be able to shut down the next Sunland before hundreds are hurt.
But I do know this: When I fix my 4-year-old a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, I should not have to worry about whether she’ll get food poisoning. When you buy peanut butter crackers from a convenience store to placate your growling tummy on a road trip, you shouldn’t fear that eating them will send you to an emergency room.
Those are routine securities that we take for granted because we live in an affluent, developed nation with government regulations for food safety. However, those protections cost money. They don’t come free.
I’ve eaten in countries where there were no pesky government regulations keeping the milk pasteurized and the water free of parasites and the cooked meat free of harmful bacteria. I’ll take more government — with its higher costs — any day.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, March 9, 2013
On March 26 this year, Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that slashed the state Department of Health’s budget and closed a state hospital where bad cases of tuberculosis were treated. Nine days later, the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) detailed in a report that Florida was experiencing its worst TB outbreak in 20 years in Jacksonville. Since then, the governor’s office has either ignored or suppressed news of the outbreak, and it rushed ahead with plans to close the TB hospital as local officials kept information about the outbreak from the public. This, all according to an excellent investigation by the Palm Beach Post’s Stacey Singer, who was stymied by state officials at every turn when she tried to learn more about the outbreak and about why the state hadn’t responded to it in a concerted way.
While the CDC report came out after Scott had signed the law, the strain of TB responsible for the outbreak had been identified as early as 2008, and the report only existed because local officials in Duval County requested federal help in dealing with the overwhelming uptick in new TB cases. Meanwhile, the Duval Health Department is also a victim of budget cuts. In 2008, when the TB outbreak was first identified in an assisted living facility for people with schizophrenia, the department had 946 staffers and $61 million in revenue. “Now we’re down to 700 staff and revenue is down to $46 million,” Director Dr. Bob Harmon told the Post.
The fact that the outbreak began where it did and that it has so far spread mostly among homeless people, mental health patients and drug addicts who encounter each other in soup kitchens and shelters may have made the issue seem less urgent to state officials. Setting aside the dignity of all human life, there is already evidence that the disease has spread beyond the underclass and is continuing to grow, unmonitored, in the Sunshine state. The governor’s office did not comment for Singer’s story, and the state health department has stuck to its message that statewide TB cases are down over last year, suggesting the closure of the hospital was valid. (The hospital closed at the end of June.)
The case underscores the real human consequences of austerity budgeting and conservatives’ drive to slash government whenever possible. Since austerity came into vogue with the Tea Party beginning in 2009 and was then put in place nationally after the Republican wave in 2010, there have been countless examples where cuts or attempted cuts impact preparedness. After the the Japanese tsunami, it was noted that Republican budget cuts targeted the agency responsible for tsunami warnings. The same was true about earthquake monitoring after a temblor struck the eastern seaboard (though funding was restored). House Majority Leader Eric Cantor also tried to hold up disaster funding for tornado and earthquake cleanup, demanding it be offset with cuts elsewhere. Republicans’ proposed budget last year would have cut funds for the CDC and food safety monitoring. Meanwhile, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoiled his big national debut in 2009 when he gave the GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s first state of the union address in which he attacked supposedly wasteful spending on volcano monitoring in Alaska. Just a month and a half later, a volcano erupted in Alaska that threatened Anchorage.
By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, July 9, 2012
Whether or not he lets himself be persuaded to run for president, Chris Christie needs to find some way to lose weight. Like everyone else, elected officials perform best when they are in optimal health. Christie obviously is not.
You could argue that this is none of my business, but I disagree. Christie’s problem with weight ceased being a private matter when he stepped into the public arena — and it’s not something you can fail to notice. Obesity is a national epidemic whose costs are measured not just in dollars and cents but also in lives. Christie’s weight is as legitimate an issue as the smoking habit that President Obama says he has finally kicked.
On rare occasions, Christie speaks candidly about his weight. “I’m really struggling, been struggling for a long time with it,” he told CNN’s Piers Morgan in June. “And I know that it would be better for my kids if I got it more under control, and so I do feel a sense of guilt at times about that.”
Six weeks later, the New Jersey governor was briefly hospitalized for asthma — a condition that he has had for most of his life. Researchers say that many respiratory problems, including asthma, are worsened by obesity.
As he left the hospital, Christie acknowledged the connection. He described himself as “relatively healthy by all objective indicators,” but added that “if I weighed less, I’d be healthier.”
“The weight exacerbates everything,” he said.
And it does. According to the National Institutes of Health, obesity puts people at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, certain types of cancer, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and gallbladder and liver disease.
The NIH estimates that nearly 34 percent of U.S. adults can be classified as “obese,” meaning they have a body mass index of more than 30. By this standard, a man who stands 5-foot-11 — Christie’s reported height — would be obese if his weight reached 215 pounds. While Christie does not disclose his weight, it appears to exceed the 286 pounds that would place him among the 5.7 percent of American adults whom NIH classifies as “extremely obese.”
I refer to obesity as an epidemic because the percentage of obese adults has doubled in the past 40 years — and childhood obesity is increasing even more rapidly. Again according to the NIH, “obesity is associated with over 112,000 excess deaths due to cardiovascular disease, over 15,000 excess deaths due to cancer, and over 35,000 excess deaths due to non-cancer, non-cardiovascular disease causes per year.”
On average, health-care costs for obese persons are 42 percent higher than costs for individuals whose weight falls into the “normal” range. It costs Medicare $1,723 more a year for an obese beneficiary than a non-obese one. For Medicaid the differential is $1,021, and for private insurers it’s $1,140. In other words, obesity is helping propel the rise in health-care costs, which are fueling the long-term rise in the national debt.
My intention is not to blame Christie for the federal government’s deficit spending — or, in fact, to blame him for his own obesity. Blame is not the point. Christie is just 49 and has four young children; politics aside, I’m sure he wants to be around to share the milestones in their lives. He prides himself on bullheaded determination and speaks often about the need for officials to display leadership. Well, Gov. Christie, lead thyself.
“I weigh too much because I eat too much,” he said after his hospitalization this summer, “and I eat some bad things, too.”
If only it were that simple. Yes, the basic arithmetic of calories ingested vs. calories expended is inescapable. But the science of weight control now takes into account the role that genetics might play, along with psychological factors that lie outside our conscious control. There are new options, including gastric surgery, beyond the dieting roller coaster — lose 40 pounds, gain it all back — that Christie says he has been riding for years.
Those who have lost weight and kept it off for extended periods, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, say they have succeeded by making proper diet and exercise part of their lives — not just unpleasant chores that have to be endured.
Politically, I disagree with Christie on almost everything. I’ll have plenty of opportunities to tell him why. Today, I’d just like to offer him a bit of unsolicited, nonpartisan, sincere advice: Eat a salad and take a walk.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 29, 2011
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) earned glowing reviews for her performance in Monday’s CNN/Tea Party presidential debate. Her perceived finest moment: Hammering Texas Gov. Rick Perry over his (quickly overruled) 2007 executive order mandating that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” in Texas get vaccinated against the sexually transmitted infection HPV. Bachmann didn’t fare as well, however, in her post-debate media blitz, ill-advisedly repeating the cautionary tale of a mother who claimed her daughter “suffered from mental retardation” because of the HPV vaccine. Has Bachmann “jumped the shark” (as Rush Limbaugh suggests) by attacking vaccines instead of just Perry?
Bachmann is sabotaging herself: Bachmann’s odd assertion sounds a lot like the “thoroughly debunked” claim that childhood vaccines cause autism, says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. And as with the autism “nonsense,” there is no evidence that the HPV vaccine has ever caused anything like “mental retardation.” Bachmann really blew it here, quickly fleeing the debate’s winner’s circle for the fringe camp of “anti-vaccine wingnuts like Jenny McCarthy.”
This is just Bachmann being Bachmann: “News flash: Vaccine luddism is rather widespread,” says Dave Weigel at Slate. And the fact that it’s Bachmann who’s tapped into it is “totally unsurprising,” given her penchant for “endorsing or ‘just asking questions’ about dark theories that she’s overheard.” Really, such claims are just par for the course with Bachmann.
Whatever her reasons, this will cost Bachmann: “I liked Michele Bachmann. A lot,” says Lori Ziganto at RedState. That ends now. I don’t care if she’s “actually cuckoo pants or if she’s just lying and using children and the fears of their parents to score political points,” but this “tall tale” about a 12-year-old absurdly “catching” mental retardation — something you’re born with — tells me all I need to know: Bachmann’s “not very bright” and she’s a “Jenny McCarthyist.” Let’s not forget: “Vaccinations save lives.”
By: The Week, Opinion Brief, September 14, 2011