BUSINESS

U.S. Nuke Plant Workers Protected By Whistleblower Ruling

03/18/2011 12:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Welcome to our blog, "The Watchdog," which will keep a close eye on regulatory agencies and how their actions impact the lives of everyday Americans. Though the rules and regulations they write -- from determining how much arsenic is allowable in your drinking water to whether your favorite TV show can drop the F-bomb in primetime -- affect all of us, their deliberations and the way that lobbyists influence their decisions receives very little coverage.

To make sense of these debates, follow the implementation of health care reform and financial reform and decipher the minutia of the Federal Register, "The Watchdog" is on the case. If you have any tips or suggestions, send them to marcus@huffingtonpost.com.

03/18/2011 1:42 PM EDT

GAO: Admin Needs To Develop Food Safety Plan

After the Government Accountability Office added food safety oversight to its high-risk list in 2007, officials at OMB, FDA and USDA promised to follow up on recommendations to develop a government-wide performance plan.

But the GAO is disappointed with the results, saying in a new report that most of the goals outlined in a food safety working group's findings are not results-oriented and do not include performance measures. Further, the report suggests that the proposed plan should be updated on an annual basis and needs to include information about the resources "needed to achieve those goals."

When GAO added food safety oversight to its high-risk list in 2007, it said that what remains to be done is to develop a governmentwide performance plan for food safety that is mission based, results oriented, and provides a cross-agency perspective. Officials from OMB, FDA, and USDA told us that the FSWG's July 2009 "key findings" represent the governmentwide plan for food safety. However, most of the goals outlined in the key findings are not results oriented and do not include performance measures. Further, the FSWG has not provided information about the resources that are needed to achieve its goals.

03/18/2011 11:28 AM EDT

Nuke Plant Workers Protected By Whistleblower Ruling

Its timing was probably not related to the crisis in Japan, but OSHA's new ruling on the handling of whistleblower retaliation complaints should reassure workers at nuclear facilities who may be interviewed as part of President Obama's review of emergency procedures at nuclear power plants.

The final ruling on the handling of "whistleblower retaliation complaints under the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 and six environmental statutes consistent with retaliation complaint procedures under other OSHA whistleblower provisions" should mean that workers won't lose their jobs for talking about procedures and conditions at plants.

From OSHA's release:

"Silenced workers are not safe workers," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. "Changes in the whistleblower provisions make good on the promise to stand by those workers who have the courage to come forward when they believe their employer is violating an environmental or nuclear safety law."

The rule covers workers who voice concerns related to nuclear and environmental safety or security under clean air and water, safe drinking water, solid waste, and toxic substances, among others. OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of these nuclear and environmental statutes and 14 other statutes protecting workers who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, financial reform, health care reform, pipeline, public transit, railroad, maritime and securities laws.

03/18/2011 11:18 AM EDT

The Wake-Up Call: Regulators Aware For Years Of Seismic Risks

- Today's must-read: Regulators aware for years of understated seismic risks to nuclear plants. Despite six years of study, industry collaboration and a missed deadline, no decision yet on reactor fixes.

- Former NRC regulator is now flacking for the pro-nuke lobby.

- With Congress in friendlier hands, oil and gas lobbyists are shifting more of their attention away from Capitol Hill and to the federal agencies developing regulations that will affect how the industry does business.

- Iowa's Republican-led House passed a bill yesterday (65-27) that criminalizes people who apply for jobs on farms in order to secretly record video of farm animal abuse.

- Pretty tough cartoon from Tom Toles:

03/17/2011 11:13 AM EDT

The Wake-Up Call: Greed, Lax Oversight Helped Cause Crisis

- Today's must-read: Reports suggest that greed within the worldwide nuclear industry, combined with an insufficient UN watchdog and lax oversight of Japan's nuclear plants, contributed to the Japan nuclear crisis.

- Former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis explains why he thinks regulatory reform is crucial for renewed American prosperity.

- Regulators from the Treasury Department and 9 U.S. Attorneys General are probing MoneyGram for allowing fraudulent activity to take place using its money-transfer services.

- Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) at Consumer Federation of America's Consumer Assembly today: "All the things we have been championing are under attack." He also lashes out at businesses complaining about federal lead standards, explaining that "there is no known safe level of lead in children's products."

- A quick recap of the current status of TARP programs.

03/17/2011 10:54 AM EDT

BP Whistleblower's Case Allowed To Proceed

Scroll down to see the judge's motion

A whistleblower lawsuit claiming ongoing safety violations at BP's Atlantis deepwater rig in the Gulf of Mexico was allowed to proceed in federal district court in Texas by Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt. The trial is set to begin in November.

Kenneth Abbott, a former subcontractor on Atlantis whose claims were largely dismissed in a report by the Bureau for Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the federal agency with oversight of offshore drilling, was pleased with the ruling:

“The ruling clears the way to get to the core of what we’re asking BP to do, which is comply with federal requirements that were in place when they started production and that are in place today. Ultimately the question is, are the Gulf of Mexico and the operators on the Atlantis safe? Do they have accurate blueprints to work from, or not?"

Abbott claims that Atlantis lacks critical and required engineering documentation, which could create a disaster even worse than Deepwater Horizon. He seeks to have the rig shut down until BP complies with federal regulations by providing engineering drawings required to start production.

In his ruling, Judge Hoyt dismissed the oil giant's claim that it did not need federal regulatory approval to begin oil production on Atlantis because it already had been granted a drilling lease.

“BP’s right to extract oil and gas . . . is predicated upon its compliance with its leases’ contractual provisions.” the Judge wrote. “Applicable regulations demand that production equipment be designed by qualified engineers, meet specified engineering requirements, and include ’as built’ documentation upon which others can rely in, for example, times of disaster.”

2011-03-15 Order denying motion to dismiss

03/16/2011 5:36 PM EDT

Rand Paul: Replace CPSC With Consumer Reports Magazine

Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite, is known for his deregulatory zeal but his latest proposal is raising eyebrows among even the most jaded political observers.

An amendment that Paul plans to introduce Thursday calls for the repeal of seven independent agencies, ranging from the Affordable Housing Program and the State Justice Institute to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The CSPC, an independent agency created in 1972 to protect "against unreasonable risks of injuries associated with consumer products," has the authority to regulate the sale and manufacture of more than 15,000 different products, including children's toys, swimming pools and all-terrain vehicles. Among the dozens of potentially dangerous products recalled by the agency so far this month are wooden playpens (for choking and laceration hazards), wall-mounted fireplaces (fire and fall hazards), and ATVs (fire hazards).

Paul's staff says that public-interest outlets such as Consumer Reports are fully capable of protecting the public from dangerous products.

Asked to explain the senator's rationale, Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley wrote in an email to The Huffington Post:

Regarding your Qs about the CPSC, we do plan on eliminating the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Plenty of independent and efficient consumer groups exist across the U.S.; Consumer Reports, for example. It's time that the federal government retreats from such services, as its presence in this arena is unnecessary and was never intended in the first place.

Though that sentiment is certainly flattering to the venerable magazine's staff, Jim Guest, the president and CEO of Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports, strongly disagrees with the idea of eliminating the CSPC.

Guest said in an emailed statement:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is absolutely critical to ensuring the safety of thousands of products in the marketplace. When it comes to product safety, the CPSC is the cop on the beat. We've got to have them. At Consumer Reports we recently did a national poll that found Americans strongly support the federal government’s role in protecting people from unsafe consumer products. The overwhelming majority of respondents – 98 percent – agreed that the federal government should play a prominent role in improving product safety. 82 percent strongly agreed the federal government should require testing by manufacturers of children's products to ensure they do not contain any harmful substances. That's why we have a CPSC, and that's why we need them.

And a policy counsel for Public Citizen called the proposed amendment "outrageous" in an email, adding that his group "and other consumer groups have been working to fight attempts to defund the new product safety database that was authorized by the bipartisan product safety law passed in 2008. Sen. Paul apparently isn't content with just preventing the creation of a database that allows consumers to see which products are unsafe; he wants to prevent all inspections, enforcement, and guidance from the CPSC; eliminate recalls of dangerous products; and require parents to bet their children's lives when they buy a crib or toy."

Previously, Paul had suggested slashing spending at the agency but his position has obviously hardened in recent weeks.

03/16/2011 11:06 AM EDT

How Much Radiation Is Emitted By Airport Body Scanners?

The Transportation Security Administration has to re-analyze the radiation levels of X-ray body scanners in airports, after testing produced dramatically higher-than-expected results, reports Wired's Threat Level blog:

"The TSA, which has deployed at least 500 body scanners to at least 78 airports, said Tuesday the machines meet all safety standards and would remain in operation despite a “calculation error” in safety studies. The flawed results showed radiation levels 10 times higher than expected."

Two prominent groups - the Association for Airline Passenger Rights and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are urging the government to stop using the $180,000 machines that produce a virtual-nude image of the body until new tests are concluded in May.

“Airline passengers have enough concerns about flying — including numerous ones about how TSA conducts its haphazard security screenings — so it is TSA’s responsibility to ensure passengers are not being exposed to unhealthy amounts of radiation,” Brandon Macsata, executive director of the group, said in a statement.

03/16/2011 11:00 AM EDT

Revolving Door Update: Ex-FCC Chair Joins Cable Trade Group

Michael Powell, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission known for his support of deregulation and for unraveling media ownership rules that allow for greater media concentration, was named the new president and chief executive of the cable industry’s biggest trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

The Washington Post reports:

He steps into his role as head of the NCTA amid massive change in the cable and telecom industry as those firms shift more toward broadband Internet access. Internet video firms such as Netflix, Hulu and Apple TV, meanwhile, threaten their paid television services.

Powell will represent the cable industry’s regulatory issues before Congress and the FCC. He replaces Kyle McSlarrow, who was recently named president of Comcast’s Washington office.

03/16/2011 10:42 AM EDT

The Wake-Up Call: All-Japan Nuclear Crisis Edition

- Japan was warned over two years ago, according to WikiLeaks cables. An official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in December 2008 that safety rules were out of date and strong earthquakes would pose a "serious problem" for nuclear power stations.

In this cable summarizing a December 2008 meeting of the G8 Nuclear Safety and Security Group (NSSG), an embassy official wrote:

On earthquakes and nuclear safety, the IAEA presenter noted the Agency has officials in Japan to learn from Japan's recent experience dealing with earthquakes and described several areas of IAEA focus. First, he explained that safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised three times in the last 35 years and that the IAEA is now reexamining them. Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this a serious problem that is now driving seismic safety work. The IAEA is issuing a new guide on seismic evaluation to accompany existing guidelines on seismic hazard and design. Finally, the IAEA noted it had launched an International Seismic Safety Center at its September general conference to enhance safety, develop standards, pool and share knowledge.

- In the event of a nuclear disaster in the U.S., many residents do not have radiation-reducing medication.

- WSJ: Japan's nuclear-power crisis is reviving long-held doubts about the strength of the nation's nuclear regulatory system and its independence from government efforts to sell nuclear technology abroad.

- The state of Alaska is considering adding additional radiation monitors in rural areas as a precautionary measure as federal nuclear officials continue to monitor Japan's failing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

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