Chemical safety watchdog photo shows explosion at AB Specialty Silicones

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Published — July 31, 2020

How gutting watchdogs can blow up in your face

The aftermath of the explosion at AB Specialty Silicones in May 2019. Four workers died. (Courtesy of Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board)

Introduction

Hi Watchdogs, and welcome back to your favorite newsletter. 👋

This week, we’re breaking down our latest investigation with Vox on President Trump’s efforts to get rid of one agency that (basically) makes sure you don’t have explosions in your backyard. We also answer a thoughtful reader’s question about voting rights and provide some takeaways from Attorney General William Barr’s testimony earlier this week. And then we have a Q&A with Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan. 

Did you know that there’s a government agency that investigates and prevents chemical explosions? 

There’s a small agency that focuses on preventing industrial disasters (think the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 and the 2005 explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, that killed 15 workers and injured 180.) Since 1998, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has investigated accidents and made safety recommendations. But it has basically ground to a standstill.

It has four vacant seats, and needs a quorum to function. But the White House hasn’t announced plans to fill these vacant seats. In fact, Trump has been pushing to eliminate the board in each of his annual budget proposals. Sans quorum, the board will not be able to release final reports from any of its 13 pending investigations.

Worth Noting: The U.S. is among the world’s top chemical producers, with more than 12,000 facilities that handle toxic or flammable chemicals used to make everything from pharmaceuticals to fertilizers. 

These facilities could be near businesses or residential areas (in your own backyard.) Here’s the latest in our series with Vox, which investigates the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda. (Tweet this story)
 

This week, we hit a grim milestone: 150,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. While noting this, plenty of news outlets cited the unpublicized White House document that we obtained on 18 states in the coronavirus “red zone.” 

The report made clear that these states — including Texas and Florida — needed to take more aggressive steps, like shuttering bars and gyms, to counter the virus’s spread. Many state officials were aghast that this information was kept under wraps — at least, until we got it. 

And we freely shared it with over 500 newsrooms across the country. We believe that a pandemic is no time for one-upmanship — it’s a time for partnerships. Help us continue to collaborate with local newsrooms and report stories that directly affect you and your community.



Update: Last week, we reported that coronavirus evictions disproportionately hurt people of color. (Tweet this story)Then, Trump tweeted this week that those living the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” will no longer be “bothered or financially hurt” by local low-income housing construction.  

In our story, William Emmons, a lead economist with the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, describes exactly what Trump is endorsing. “We now are living in a world where there’s even more economic stratification than there was before, and that has taken the place of legalized racial discrimination,” Emmons said.

Our reporter Sarah Kleiner’s takeaway: Suburbanites talk a lot about property value and crime, but what’s hiding beneath the surface is a conversation about race. 
 

Related: When the pandemic hit, many electricity providers voluntarily suspended disconnections for nonpayment. Now, many power shut-off moratoriums are expiring. (via NPR) 
 

One of our readers asked: “If people are evicted from their homes, how does that affect their ability to vote in November?”  

Good question! Nonprofit Vote says you can register to vote without a place to live in all 50 states. But certain states have different requirements before you can call yourself a resident. 

If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible to vote because of your residency status, you can check out the voter residency requirements for each state here.  

We’ve been talking a lot about how evictions could affect access to the ballot box in November, but that’s not the only potential barrier we’re thinking about. Senior reporter Carrie Levine laid out some other probable roadblocks, including polling place consolidations that mostly impact voters of color, money shortages and, of course, the pandemic.(Tweet this story)

ICYMI: In another tweet, President Trump floated the idea of delaying the November election. But can he do that? Experts say, “nope.


What we’re watching: The House Judiciary Committee had its first hearing with William Barr earlier this week. Democrats said Barr corrupted the Department of Justice to benefit Trump. POLITICO notes that there wasn’t much new ground broken during this hearing. But many outlets picked up his statements on race and policing. 

“I don’t agree there is systemic racism in police departments,” he said after Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee urged Barr to recognize the issue. 

What we found: Critics say that because police union contracts are not normal collective bargaining agreements, a web of complex rules make it virtually impossible to hold police accountable for killing unarmed Black citizens. (Tweet this story)

We also zoomed in on a few cities experimenting with police reform. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Black residents are three times as likely as whites to have police officers use force against them. And in Newark, New Jersey, 80.9% of pedestrian stops were of Black people. (Tweet this story)

Related: ProPublica published a database of civilians’ abuse complaints against NYPD officers. Thirty-four officers have 40 or more allegations against them. 

Barr also defended the federal response to protests in Portland, including arrests made by Portland police in unmarked cars. Protesters have since filed suit against the Trump administration over its federal response. 


Copies of The Miami Herald, which Margaret Sullivan notes doggedly reported on Jeffrey Epstein.
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

For this week’s reporter Q&A, we talked to renowned Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan about her new book, “Ghosting The News.” In the book, Sullivan — who worked her way up from intern to top editor at her hometown newspaper The Buffalo News — sounds a warning bell about the death of local news. And that means dire consequences for American democracy and our communities.

This may not surprise you, Watchdog news junkies, but most Americans are still unaware of this situation. Believe it or not, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 71% of Americans believelocal news is doing well financially.

*Interview lightly edited for clarity

You paint a pretty dire picture of massive news closures, even pre-pandemic. How has COVID-19 shaped this landscape now?

Well, local journalism, especially local newspapers, have been in free fall for at least 15 years. That got worse when we had the Great Recession in 2008, because it had such a devastating effect on advertising. Things were pretty bad and 2,000 American newspapers folded by 2019. But when the pandemic began, followed by the economic shutdown, it really exacerbated the trends that were very severe before. Thousands of journalists have lost jobs since the pandemic. (Roughly 36,000 workers at news companies in the U.S. have been laid off, been furloughed or had their pay reduced since the pandemic struck, estimates The New York Times.)

But this is happening at a time when local journalism is even more important than ever. People are depending on local news outlets — not just to tell them what is going on in the country, but their region, town and village. That could be about hospitalization rates or the local rules on reopening. All these things are of great interest, literally matters of life and death. And the fact that there are less and less local news outlets to do this is really troubling.

In your book, you talk about a few models that have sprung up to fill the need — more nonprofit newsrooms (like us!), citizen journalists and possibly even government-supported news. Some stellar examples: East Lansing Info, a community run website, which has managed to expose stories on local government waste and corruption. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

I see some signs of hope, particularly with digital startups, some of which are nonprofits, and philanthropic efforts. But overall I’m not particularly encouraged. I’m actually very discouraged about the future of local newspapers. There are a few that are doing OK, of course, but, in general, digital subscriptions have not been able to fill the void of regular advertisements and support the business of putting out these very important news products.

Local papers, like Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald, doggedly reported for years on Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking. Herald reporter Julie K. Brown’s decision to interview all the women Epstein victimized made all the difference, and she did all this work after many thought the Epstein saga had gone stale. What happens when news organizations no longer have the time and resources to allow reporters to investigate? Or one that has lawyers on staff, or on call?

Do you think people know and care enough to support local news? Why don’t we think of news the way we think of, for example, schools — as a necessary part of civil society worth supporting?

People don’t recognize how important local news is, and how much trouble it is in, because these organizations were so successful for such a long time. They were making 30% profit margins for years, making money hand over fist. Public understanding hasn’t caught up with that. I do think it’s important people understand that this is no longer the case, and to sound the alarm. We need to think hard and very fast about how to save something that is such an important part of American democracy.

Isn’t it deeply depressing to write something that feels like a dirge?

I was depressed before. I already knew the big picture I painted in the book before I started, but when researching, I was actually finding hopeful signs. It gave me some sense there are answers. After all, it doesn’t matter if we save local newspapers, if we save local journalism.

Speaking of Sullivan: Read her latest critique on misinformation, in which she lambasts the folks pushing hydroxychloroquine — in addition to demon sperm and alien DNA. We also wrote about the hazards of Trump promoting drug treatments like hydroxychloroquine and anti-depressant Spravato here.
 

That’s all we have for this week, folks. Did any of you experience the 4.2-magnitude earthquake that hit Southern California early Thursday morning? Stay safe out there.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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