Obama's "five worst nominees"

Over at the Mother Jones blog, Kate Sheppard, David Corn and Daniel Schulman compiled a list of “Obama’s Five Worst Nominees.” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner doesn’t make the cut, which surprised me until I read the short bios of appointees who are likely to put corporate interests ahead of the public interest. In alphabetical order:

William Lynn, for whom the president made an exception to his policy on lobbyists in government. Lynn was the chief lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon before becoming deputy secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

William Magwood, a “cheerleader for nuclear power” who has “worked for reactor maker Westinghouse and has run two firms that advise companies on nuclear projects.” Obama nominated him for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Scott O’Malia, who was apparently suggested by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. O’Malia “was a lobbyist for Mirant, an Enron-like energy-trading firm” and lobbied for weakening the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to which Obama appointed him.

Joseph Pizarchik, who helped form policies in Pennsylvania to allow disposal of toxic coal ash in unlined pits. Obama named him director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Islam Siddiqui, whom Obama appointed to be the chief agricultural negotiator for the U.S. trade representative. Jill Richardson has been on this case at La Vida Locavore; see here and here on why Siddiqui is the wrong person for this job.

I wouldn’t suggest that this rogue’s gallery is representative of Obama appointees, but it’s depressing to see any of them in this administration.

In the good news column, Obama has decided to renominate Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, along with five other nominees who didn’t receive a confirmation vote in the Senate last year.

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Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 1)

I expected 2009 to be a relatively quiet year in Iowa politics, but was I ever wrong.

The governor’s race heated up, state revenues melted down, key bills lived and died during the legislative session, and the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Varnum v Brien became one of this state’s major events of the decade.

After the jump I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from January through June 2009. Any comments about the year that passed are welcome in this thread.

Although I wrote a lot of posts last year, there were many important stories I didn’t manage to cover. I recommend reading Iowa Independent’s compilation of “Iowa’s most overlooked and under reported stories of 2009,” as well as that blog’s review of “stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010.”

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What's unfair to residents of coal-dependent states?

Politicians in both parties have complained that proposed federal climate change bills are “unfair” to Midwestern states, which rely largely on coal to generate electricity. Utility companies and corporate groups have tried to reinvent themselves as defenders of the public interest against those who would unjustly “punish” consumers living in coal-dependent states.

Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report this week on “Coal’s Assault on Human Health.” This report should be required reading for all members of Congress, especially Senator Tom Harkin and other Democrats who have demanded more subsidies for coal-burning utilities in the climate-change bill. From the executive summary (pdf file):

Coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases. […] Each step of the coal lifecycle–mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of post-combustion wastes–impacts human health. Coal combustion in particular contributes to diseases affecting large portions of the U.S. population, including asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, compounding the major public health challenges of our time. It interferes with lung development, increases the risk of heart attacks, and compromises intellectual capacity.

In yesterday’s Des Moines Register, Lee Rood highlighted some of the extra burdens Iowans bear because of coal-fired power plants. Follow me after the jump for more.

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Be thankful coal plants in Iowa were shelved

For those who are still upset that new coal-fired power plants will not be built near Marshalltown and Waterloo, I recommend reading Jason Hancock’s recent article at Iowa Independent:

People who live near near sites used to store ash or sludge from coal-fired power plants have a one in 50 chance of developing cancer, according to a just released government report kept from the public for seven years by the Bush Administration.

The data, compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 and released Thursday by the watchdog groups Earth Justice and the Environmental Integrity Project, suggests that environmental contamination from the storage sites could last for a century or longer. […]

Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the waste produced by burning coal. The nation’s power plants produce enough ash to fill 1 million railroad cars a year, according to a 2006 report by the National Research Council. Coal-burning power plants in Iowa produce 20,000 to 30,000 tons of coal ash every year. The Hawkeye State also imports coal ash from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

As the new study shows, neighbors of coal ash storage sites have an elevated cancer risk even when those sites are functioning normally. Occasional catastrophes like last December’s huge spill in Tennessee add to the contamination problems, but even if all accidents could be prevented, heavy metals and other pollutants would still leach into groundwater at many sites.

I’ve written before about the respiratory problems and premature deaths caused by fine particulate matter, and coal-fired power plants are a leading source of that kind of air pollution.

Now we have proof that solid waste from coal-fired power plants endangers human health too.

Iowa is fortunate not to have two new coal-burning facilities under construction. Those would have been a 50-year investment in the wrong direction, adversely affecting air quality, water quality and of course greenhouse gas emissions.

There is still no such thing as clean coal.

Iowans will be better served by meeting our demand for electricity through clean renewable production as well as conservation and energy efficiency measures.

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Of all the times to shelve coal ash disposal rules

I missed this Des Moines Register story last week:

Iowa state environmental regulators want to shelve for as long as three years new rules intended to keep toxic coal ash out of Iowa’s water supplies, largely because of industry protests.

Environmentalists say the state is caving in to industry pressure while putting Iowans’ drinking water supplies, and health, at risk.

The article quotes Carrie La Seur, founder of Plains Justice, as saying she learned on December 30

that Iowa regulators agreed to postpone action on their new rules after companies that handle ash waste questioned the true health risk and objected to potential costs associated with the changes that they said would be passed on to consumers.

Instead, the firms offered to install monitoring wells to check whether ash is polluting water around unlined former gravel pits and ravines where the material is used as fill.

Coal ash typically contains a variety of heavy metals that can cause cancer, neurological and developmental problems, and other illnesses. The pollutants include arsenic, lead, mercury and boron, which are concentrated at levels in the ash that are far above the amount found in coal.

In 2007 Plains Justice produced an Iowa Coal Combustion Waste Disposal Report. Click the link to download the report.

La Seur told the Des Moines Register that Plains Justice is particularly concerned about storing coal ash near rivers.

With good reason, because the recent billion-gallon coal ash spill in Tennessee may be even worse for the environment and for human health than it first appeared.

This Daily Kos diary discusses the contaminants that have already been found in the Emory River since that accident:

All water samples were found to contain elevated levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium. The samples were taken from the immediate area of the coal waste spill, in front of the Kingston Fossil plant intake canal just downstream from the spill site, and at a power line crossing two miles downstream from the spill.

These pollutants will flow downstream to larger rivers, and they are likely to remain in the environment for a long time. Water near a similar accident in Kentucky remained devoid of aquatic life for years.

Even worse, waste produced by coal plants contains radioactive compounds. Daily Kos diarist Hummingbird linked to a 2007 article from Scientific American: Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste. Click the link to read the very disturbing details.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources should not back off from requiring coal ash storage facilities to have liners. That is a reasonable precaution, given how many hazardous substances are concentrated in the coal ash.

The Register says companies have offered to install wells to monitor whether contaminants are leaching from unlined ravines and gravel pits into groundwater. I hope the DNR will have the resources and commitment to follow through on this monitoring and check compliance. I do not want to take corporations’ word for it that the water around their storage facilities is fine.

Unfortunately, the DNR is not always quick to investigate potential water quality problems.

The disaster in Tennessee should be a reminder to all that there is no such thing as clean coal, even if future technology were able to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

UPDATE: A commenter at Daily Kos pointed out that the timeline of the DNR’s decision is unclear. La Seur says she learned of plans to shelve the new disposal rules on December 30. But did the DNR make that decision before or after the Tennessee disaster occurred on December 22?

If you know the answer to this question, please e-mail me confidentially at desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com.

SECOND UPDATE: I got this reply from La Seur:

Plains Justice has been working with DNR on this rulemaking for most of the last year following our 2007 coal ash disposal report.  We filed comments on a draft rulemaking at the end of the summer.  DNR then announced that it would be issuing a second draft for comment in December.  We were waiting on that when the TN coal ash spill happened.  Because of TN we began to get press queries about Iowa’s status, so we called DNR to ask what was happening with the rulemaking.  DNR told us that the rulemaking was being shelved because of industry resistance and DNR would be changing the website soon to reflect that change.  To my knowledge there was no public notice or public hearing.

We’ve been publicizing this development and pursuing other actions in response.  If anyone needs more information, give me a call at 319-362-2120.

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