Ground to dust: fracking, silicosis and the politics of public health

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Silica dust is created through construction, mining and other industries that grind down rock, concrete, masonry and sand. Over-exposure to the dust causes an irreversible scarring of the lungs called silicosis. Approximately 2.2 million American workers are exposed to this hazard, and this contributed to the death of 1,437 Americans from silicosis between 2001 and 2010.

It also leads to other diseases. The U.K. Health and Safety Executive estimates that around 600 British people die each year from lung cancer associated with silica dust exposure.

Public health experts have long known about the dangers of airborne silica. In 1938, the U.S. Department of Labor created an informational video calling jackhammers “widow-makers” due to the harmful dust they create. In 1949, the U.K. significantly curtailed the use of sandblasting, and several other European countries followed suit .

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OSHA put silica on its regulatory agenda in 1997 under President Clinton. After many years, study after study and numerous bureaucratic delays, OSHA finally proposed a standard in 2013, and held extensive public hearings in 2014. OSHA estimates that the new standard will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year once its full effects are realized.

But for some, eighteen years of study just isn’t enough. On June 25, North Dakota Senator John Hoeven successfully attached a provision to a government funding bill that would delay this standard becoming law.

That’s bad news for workers like Eddie Mallon, who worked as a sandhog for 44 years. He has silicosis, and he warns that larger drilling equipment creates more dust exposure for workers. “I am very concerned that the young workers coming into our business today will have more respiratory health problems than even we experienced unless these exposures are better controlled,” he testified at the 2014 hearings.

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So why would this particular senator care so much about silica dust? Silica sand is used in fracking, and public health experts are increasingly concerned about its impact on those who work in the industry.

Recent field studies conducted by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that nearly 80 percent of the samples it took at fracking sites showed unsafe levels of airborne silica.

And who are the top three contributors to this particular senator’s campaign coffers since 2009? Oil and gas company executives and political action committees. Murray Energy, NextEra Energy and Xcel Energy lead the list. All told, the oil and gas industry has given $334,387 to his campaign committee, while the mining industry kicked in with $196,756.

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Senator Hoeven is only the latest elected official to throw an obstacle in the path of an updated silica standard. The Obama administration delayed seeking comment on a proposed change for more than two years.

OSHA was on track to finalize a standard in 2016. But if the industry gets its way, it won’t be agreed next year, or the year after that. Politicians will continue to call for study after study. And people will continue to die or get sick.

No legislature should interfere in this way with science-based public health decisions. A law that has been repeatedly delayed at the cost of thousands of lives shouldn’t be held up any longer. The Obama administration should oppose the silica rider, and Congress should take it off the table.

An extract from Michael Halpern’s article: Michael Halpern (@halpsci) is manager of strategy and innovation for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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American States With The Weakest Unions – Top Ten

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1. North Carolina

Pct. of workers in unions: 2.9%

Union workers: 111,482 (21st lowest)
10-yr. change in union membership: -1.3% (31st largest decrease)
Total employment: 3,804,593 (9th highest)With just 2.9% of employees in a labor union in 2012, North Carolina is the least-unionized state in the entire country. Only 1.8% of private sector workers were members of a labor union as of 2012, lower than any state except for South Carolina and Arkansas. In addition, only 8.8% of public employees in the state belong to a union, the lowest rate in the country. While the number of public sector jobs grew 20% between 2002 and 2012, the percentage of public workers unionized declined from 10.5% in 2002. Although many right-to-work proponents claim that deunionization helps spur job creation, North Carolina’s lack of union representation has not led to low unemployment — the unemployment rate in the state as of December 2012 was 9.2%, the fifth highest rate in the country.

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2. Arkansas

Pct. of workers in unions: 3.2%
Union workers: 36,667 (6th lowest)
10-yr. change in union membership: -42.1% (2nd largest decrease)
Total employment: 1,155,140 (18th lowest)Arkansas has the second smallest percentage of unionized workers, due primarily to the decline in private sector membership. Between 2002 and 2012, private sector union membership dropped by almost 62%. As of 2012, a mere 1.4% of private sector workers were covered by labor unions, lower than any other state except for South Carolina. Union manufacturing jobs in the state decreased by nearly 75% over the past 10 years, while total manufacturing employment decreased by just 20.6%. Arkansas is one of just a handful of states where right-to-work laws are embedded in the state’s constitution.
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 3. South Carolina
Pct. of workers in unions: 3.3%
Union workers: 58,413 (12th lowest)
10-yr. change in union membership: -29.3% (7th largest decrease)
Total employment: 1,773,172 (24th highest)Just one in 30 workers in South Carolina belongs to a union, one of the lowest rates in the country. A paltry 1.3% of private sector workers in the state belong to a union, the lowest percentage in the entire country. Over the past 10 years, private sector union membership declined by 61.7%, more than any other state except for Arkansas. The state’s governor, Nikki Haley, has taken a vocal anti-union stance since taking office in 2011. In an interview with Fox News back in 2012, Haley said: “There’s a reason that South Carolina’s the new ‘it’ state. It’s because we are a union buster.”
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 4. Mississippi
Pct. of workers in unions: 4.3%
Union workers: 47,875 (8th lowest)
10-yr. change in union membership: -32.2% (3rd largest decrease)
Total employment: 1,115,953 (17th lowest)Total union membership in Mississippi was just over 4% last year, with total membership declining nearly a third in the past 10 years. Private union membership was cut in half between 2002 and 2012, falling from 6% to 3%. This was one of the largest decreases of all states. However, membership in public sector unions actually rose nearly 12%, significantly more than any of the bottom 10 states on this list. The economic situation in Mississippi is especially grim. The state’s median household income of $36,919 was the lowest in the U.S., as was the poverty rate of 22.6%
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5. Virginia
Pct. of workers in unions: 4.4% (tied for 5th lowest)
Union workers: 159,512 (24th highest)
10-yr. change in union membership: -18.8% (15th largest decrease)
Total employment: 3,594,507 (12th highest)Virginia has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country in both the private and public sectors. A mere 3% of private sector workers in the state were unionized in 2012. Just over 10% of public sector employees were covered by a union in 2012, a lower percentage than all but two states and down from 15.6% in 2002. Labor unions did eke out a small victory in January, when the Virginia Senate narrowly rejected a proposal to add right-to-work provisions to the state constitution. The state’s right-to-work law is still in effect by statute.
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6. Georgia

  • Pct. of workers in unions: 4.4% (tied for 5th lowest)
    Union workers: 170,726 (20th highest)
    10-yr. change in union membership: -21.7% (14th largest decrease)
    Total employment: 3,912,100 (8th highest)Between 2002 and 2012, Georgia added over 300,000 workers, one of the largest employment increases in the nation during that time. However, because the number of union workers declined by over 47,000, union participation fell from an already-low 6% to just 4.4%. Between 2002 and 2012, public union participation fell from 18.6% to just 10.5% — lower than all but four other states. Although more than 130,000 new public sector jobs were created over those 10 years, union membership fell by nearly 30% among public employees. Last year, only 3.1% of private sector employees were affiliated with a union — among the lowest percentages of all states in the U.S.
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     7. Tennessee

    Pct. of workers in unions: 4.8% (tied for 7th lowest)
    Union workers: 124,331 (24th lowest)
    10-yr. change in union membership: -43.8% (the largest decrease)
    Total employment: 2,590,205 (18th highest)Union membership in Tennessee fell by more than 43% from 2002 to 2012, the largest decline in the nation. In that time, the percentage of workers who were part of a union fell from 9.1% to just 4.8%. Among public sector workers, the decline was even more pronounced — from 22.6% to 14.7%. The state is a right-to-work state. Advocates contend such laws attract jobs, while critics believe they make recruiting union members difficult and ultimately leads to decreased wages.
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     8. Idaho

    Pct. of workers in unions: 4.8% (tied for 7th lowest)
    Union workers: 29,216 (4th lowest)
    10-yr. change in union membership: -25.2% (9th largest decrease)
    Total employment: 613,845 (11th lowest)Although the number of jobs in Idaho increased by more than 11% between 2002 and 2012, union membership declined by a quarter in the same time period. The decline was dispersed relatively evenly across the public and private sectors, with membership falling 21.5% and 28.1%, respectively. In January 2012, a federal judge ruled that a pair of anti-union laws passed by the conservative Idaho legislature violated federal law. As passed, these laws prohibited “job targeting programs” that used union dues to help contractors win bids and also banned “project labor agreements” that allowed contractors to sign agreements with union workers while concurrently bidding on public projects.

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    9. Utah

    Pct. of workers in unions: 5.2% (tied for 9th lowest)
    Union workers: 60,829 (13th lowest)
    10-yr. change in union membership: 3.2% (17th largest increase)
    Total employment: 1,181,074 (19th lowest)Utah added over 232,000 jobs between 2002 and 2012, growing employment statewide by a nation-high 24.5%. But over that period the state added less than 2,000 union members. Among the reasons was a large decline in the percentage of public workers who were part of unions — from 21.3% to 15.8%. By comparison, 35.9% of public sector employees are part of a union nationwide. But despite limited and falling union membership among state employees, a bill was introduced earlier this year that would ban collective bargaining on issues not related to wages or benefits by state and local government workers. Opponents argue the bill is not needed, because Utah allows individuals the right to work in union-heavy occupations without either joining the union or paying dues.

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    10. Arizona

    Pct. of workers in unions: 5.2% (tied for 9th lowest)
    Union workers: 125,557 (25th lowest)
    10-yr. change in union membership: 8.7% (7th largest increase)
    Total employment: 2,433,824 (21st highest)Just over 5% of the state’s workers were members of labor unions in 2012, down from 5.6% in 2002 and from 6% in 2011. Arizona is one of a handful of states where private sector union membership expanded between 2002 and 2012, growing by more than 16%. However, the state’s conservative leadership has increasingly become hostile toward these groups. In 2012, Governor Jan Brewer announced her support for legislation to weaken labor unions. Among the proposals were laws prohibiting public labor unions from collective bargaining, ending automatic payroll deductions for union dues and stripping civil-service protections for state employees, making it easier to fire them. The legislation was not passed.
  • Byword from a Huffington Post Article 2015

Yes, it’s possible to be a supreme holy figure yet still know what you are talking about regarding the Climate

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When Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment earlier this month, he faced some criticism from people who said religious leaders do not have the correct expertise to speak authoritatively about climate change.

Acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is not one of those people.

On Tuesday, the author and host of the late-night talk show StarTalk tweeted that despite being a religious figure, Pope Francis is more than qualified to talk about scientific issues. In a series of tweets, Tyson noted that the Vatican Observatory employs dozens of scientists who inform the pope on issues like climate change.

“Yes, it’s possible to be a supreme holy figure yet still know what you are talking about regarding the Climate,” he tweeted.

This isn’t the first time a scientist has spoken in defense of the pope. Independent climate scientists who reviewed the encyclical following its publication found little to argue with in terms of its scientific language.

During that review, Rutgers University professor of environmental sciences Anthony Broccoli said the Pope’s status as a religious leader had nothing to do with whether he could get the science correct.

“Pope Francis doesn’t have to be a scientist to arrive at these conclusions,” he told ThinkProgress at the time. “All he would have to do is consult the extensive reports on climate change that have been written by the world’s climate scientists in a process organized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These reports have been written to inform policymakers and stakeholders about the state of the science and they are a reliable source of information.”

Aside from having a cadre of scientists by his side, Pope Francis has his own science background, achieving a technician’s degree in chemistry before becoming a priest. Indeed, in his latest encyclical, Francis stressed that religion and science can enter into an “intense and productive dialogue with each other.”

Tyson seems to agree with that idea, too. Last year, while hosting the show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Tyson drew attention for his implications that faith can help science blossom by producing “fantastic, world-changing ideas.“

Extracted from ThinkProgress On-Line

California May Lose $2.7 Billion This Year Due To The Drought

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The historic drought plaguing California has done more than close golf coursesand incite a nationwide debate about almonds — it could result in a $2.7 billion dollar hit to the state’s economy from agricultural losses, according to research released earlier this week by the University of California, Davis.

Although the economic cost is nearly half a billion more than last year, it’s still a relatively small drop in California’s massive economy — agriculture, despite claiming a great deal of the state’s water, accounts for only about 2 percent of its overall gross domestic product. The total expected loss to California’s agricultural economy — worth $45 billion — is just 6 percent.

“The 2015 drought is not as severe as initially anticipated, but worse than 2014 in terms of reduced water availability and economic impact to agriculture,” the researchers wrote in an analysis to the California Department of Agriculture on May 31. For the most part, researchers found, farmers have been able to supplement water cuts by pumping groundwater, buffering losses from crop fallowing, and curbing employment losses.

 Still, some 564,000 acres are estimated to be left unplanted this year due to the drought, a 33 percent increase over 2014 that will result in the loss of approximately 18,600 full-time, part-time, and seasonal jobs. That’s a 9 percent increase from last year, when the drought claimed 17,100 jobs.

To avoid large economic losses, California farmers are beginning to shift production of certain crops to areas where water is more readily available.Tomatoes, for instance, are being grown more and more in the northern parts of the state, where water shortages are less of an issue than in the state’s more arid southern half.

Farmers have also taken a historic step in offering to voluntarily curb their water use. Recently, water rights holders whose property directly touches a water source in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta agreed to curb their water use by 25 percent. In exchange for that voluntary cut, the State Water Board has agreed not to impose other cuts later in the growing season.

It’s unclear how much of a difference the move will make, however, as the area impacted by the agreement accounts for less than 10 percent of California’s agricultural land.

On Tuesday, during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing about the current conditions in the West, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called for a greater understanding of how climate change would impact drought in the future, highlighting the potential economic impact agricultural losses could have nationwide. She noted that her state’s drought is causing water shortages in the Yakima Basin, Washington’s most productive agricultural region. Crop losses there are expected to cost the state $1.2 billion in 2015.

“We need to develop bold, innovative, 21st century strategies for water management that not only respond to drought conditions today, but also prepare us for an uncertain future,” Cantwell said. “This requires new ways of thinking and collaborating, and not just incremental changes at this point in time.”

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