Shortly after the anniversary of the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured 226 and upened a large portion of the small town in central Texas, the US Chemical Safety Board said the incident was preventable and that it resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert it.

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility was caused by ammonium nitrate. There are dozens of facilities across Texas storing that same chemical in large quantities. In the year since the explosion the Texas government has only made one change to laws surrounding chemical disclosure and safety: It has restricted publicly available information regarding the location of these chemicals.

In May, after the Chemical Safety Board report came out, Att’y Gen. Greg Abbott ruled that government entities can withhold the locations of dangerous chemicals listed in state records (Tier II reports) to protect the public from terrorism or other threats. Abbott, a right-winger who is the Republican candidate for governor, then said that people can identify such facilities with a “drive around” their neighborhoods, and that they can find out about the chemicals by asking the companies via letter or email. He originally said they could just walk up and ask, but had to backtrack after remembering those facilities were on private property.

The statements set off a firestorm, and Abbott was forced to concede that this method of inquiry was burdensome, but that he still considered the change in law a “win-win.”

In reporting on Abbott’s decision, the Dallas Morning News wrote that “the fact that Abbott has taken thousands of dollars from political donors related to Koch Industries, a multinational corporation with extensive chemical interests, creates particularly noxious ‘optics’ for the Republican attorney general in his campaign for governor.”

Abbott’s campaign has received more than $75,000 from Koch interests since the April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant, including a $25,000 contribution from first-time donor Chase Koch, who recently became the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division. Koch, 36, is the son of Charles Koch, one of the two billionaire Koch brothers leading the family’s politically influential business conglomerate. Abbott also attended a Koch retreat in which he had the privilege of mingling with many wealthy donors.

Texas law requires businesses that stockpile fertilizer to file Tier Two reports with their local fire departments and with the Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The reports provide information about what chemicals are being stored and in what quantity. Under the Community Right-to-Know Act, Tier Two reports may be requested directly from the facility storing the chemicals and a response must be provided within 10 days. DSHS spokeswoman Carrie Williams has said that the department will continue sharing chemical inventory records with emergency planners and first responders but that they will cease disclosing that information to the public.

Abbott told the Texas Tribune that using the Texas Homeland Protection law of 2003 he “ruled that information that is gathered by the state of Texas, if it contains information that falls in the category of homeland security, that type of information cannot be received by the public.”

His Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), is using the fallout as a way to draw a stark distinction between her priorities and those of her opponent. Davis (7/7) announced plans to strengthen the Texas Community Right-to-Know Act, saying she would make Tier II chemical information availability an emergency legislative item during her first week in office.

“Communities deserve to know if there are explosive chemical stockpiles blocks away from their schools, day cares, nursing homes and grocery stores — especially after the tragedy in West, Texas,” Davis said in a statement. “If Attorney General Greg Abbott refuses to reverse his dangerous ruling to keep chemical locations secret from parents, we will have to do it for him.”

Davis is not the only state politician taking issue with Abbott’s approach. Texas state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), head of the state House’s Homeland Security Committee, recently unveiled a draft bill to stiffen regulation of ammonium nitrate.

Pickett’s proposal met with immediate pushback from state Republican legislators. Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) said the new rules could put “Mom and Pop” fertilizer companies out of business.

After the hearing, Pickett said if he really wanted to be “onerous” he would’ve proposed a statewide fire code rather than a bill focusing solely on ammonium nitrate. Texas currently has no fire code and most counties are actually banned from setting up their own fire codes. A fire code in West, Texas, may have led to inspections that would have identified potential causes of the fire, such as a wiring problem.

The US Chemical Safety Board found 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate, and the Dallas Morning News identified 74 facilities in Texas as having at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate or ammonium-related material. (Ari Phillips, ThinkProgress.org)

STATES WITH HIGHER MINIMUM WAGES SEE FASTER JOB GROWTH. States that raised their minimum wages in January have seen higher employment growth since then than the states that kept theirs at the same rate, Bryce Covert noted at ThinkProgress.org.

The minimum wage went up in 13 states — Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington — either thanks to automatic increases in line with inflation or new legislation, as Ben Wolcott reports in his analysis at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (cepr.net). The average change in employment for those states over the first five months of the year as compared with the last five of 2013 is 0.99%, while the average for all remaining states is 0.68%.

Digging deeper, all but one of those states are experiencing increases in employment, and nine of them have seen growth above the median rate.

Wolcott’s analysis builds on a previous one from Goldman Sachs, which did the same evaluation for just January and compares it to December of last year. It found that the states that had minimum wage increases experienced faster job growth than those without a raise.

This doesn’t mean that increasing the minimum wage necessarily creates more jobs. “While this kind of simple exercise can’t establish causality, it does provide evidence against theoretical negative employment effects of minimum-wage increases,” Wolcott writes.

Indeed, it adds to the evidence that higher minimum wages may not hurt job growth as much as some have warned. Washington has the highest minimum wage and saw the biggest increase in small business jobs last year. Its job growth has also remained steady and above average in the 15 years since it raised its wage. When economists studied state-level minimum wage increases over two decades they didn’t find any conclusive evidence that the raises impacted job creation.

That’s all good news for the 10 states that have increased their minimum wages this year. Massachusetts went the furthest, raising its wage to $11 by 2017, but three — Hawaii, Maryland, and Connecticut — passed the $10.10 minimum wage being pushed at the federal level by Democrats and Vermont increased its wage to $10.50. And some cities have gone even further, with Seattle enacting a $15 minimum wage.

Progress in raising the entire country’s minimum wage has stalled, though. Republicans blocked a bill that would have increased it to $10.10 an hour.

GOOD NEWS IN JUNE JOBS REPORT. The US added 288,000 jobs in June, beating economists’ forecasts, as the official unemployment rate fell to 6.1%, the lowest since September 2008. It was the fifth month in a row that more than 200,000 new jobs have been created, something that hasn’t happened since 1999, Meteor Blades noted at DailyKos.com (7/3).

Economists expect the second quarter’s annualized growth in GDP will rebound sharply after the contraction of 2.9% in the first quarter. Most are forecasting at least 3% growth, with the possibility of an even higher GDP figure for the April-June period.

The growth in jobs was led by the low-paying sectors like retail and hospitality, with the high-paying sectors, such as construction and manufacturing, lagging.

The bureau tallied 9.5 mln unemployed Americans, down 325,000 from May, but it does not include those who have left the workforce out of despair that they will find a job. There are now 414,000 more jobs than there were at the pre-recession peak.

The employment-population ratio rose to 59%. The labor force participation rate remained where it has been for three months, at 62.8%.

The “underemployment” rate, which includes Americans with no job, those working part-time who want full-time positions and workers who have looked for jobs in the past 12 months but not in the past four weeks, dropped from 12.2% in May to 12.1% in June.

Americans among the long-term unemployed — jobless for 27 weeks or more — fell to 3.1 mln, 32.8% of the total unemployed, the lowest level since June 2009, Blades noted.

Michael Tomasky noted at TheDailyBeast.com (7/7) that “the most important number was that the employment-to-population ratio, which many economists think of as the truest measure of the jobs market, was up a bit to 59%, a high for the recovery, indicating that maybe more people are finally out looking for work than staying home.”

After a miserable 2009, Tomasky noted, employment numbers went into the black in early 2010, but slipped back into the red in the summer of 2010. But since October 2010, every report has been positive — now 45 straight months of job growth for which he gets little credit. George W. Bush had a net job-creation number of 1.536 mln. Obama shows a net gain of 4.538 mln jobs so far. With 30 months to go, if the recovery gets genuinely humming and we start seeing 300,000 to 400,000 new jobs per month, he could approach the 16 mln jobs created under Ronald Reagan.

Another overlooked statistic was the 830,000 people voluntarily working part-time, Dean Baker noted. The figure is 4.4% above its year-ago level.

“The issue of voluntary part-time relates to Obamacare because one of the main purposes was to allow people to get insurance outside of employment,” Baker wrote. “For many people, especially those with serious health conditions or family members with serious health conditions, before Obamacare the only way to get insurance was through a job that provided health insurance.

“However Obamacare has allowed more than 12 mln people to either get insurance through Medicaid or the exchanges. These are people who may previously have felt the need to get a full-time job that provided insurance in order to cover themselves and their families. With Obamacare there is no longer a link between employment and insurance.

“These workers will now have an option to work part-time if they would like to spend time with young children, an ill or disabled family member, or would simply like more time to do other things. This is a freedom that workers in every other wealthy country have long enjoyed; now workers in the United States no longer need a full-time job to get health insurance. And the data indicate that many workers are taking advantage of this option.

“There is some evidence that Obamacare is having other positive impacts on the labor market. One of the striking developments in the recovery has been the incredibly disproportionate share of jobs that went to older workers. This was likely due in part to the fact that older workers would have an especially hard time paying for insurance in the individual market and therefore were to desperate to get and keep jobs that provided insurance. Obamacare now gives older workers the option to buy more affordable insurance on the exchanges. This may lead many to retire early.”

It’s too early to reach any firm conclusions about Obamacare’s influence on the labor market, but the evidence to date is positive, Baker said. “None of this is to say the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is perfect,” he added. “Far too much of our health care dollar is wasted on insurers, drug companies, and overpaid doctors. But the ACA is an enormous step forward in providing genuine health care insurance to hundreds of millions of people and the public should recognize and take advantage of this fact.”

BROWN WARNS TO BRACE FOR GOP ASSAULT ON SOCIAL SECURITY. Democrats are bracing for a new assault on the safety net from Republicans who are calling for cutbacks in disability insurance benefits. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has requested a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Social Security Disability Insurance, which probably will take place before the August recess.

In a speech delivered at the Center for American Progress (7/8) Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) argued that Republican criticism of SSDI is part of a “divide and conquer” strategy designed to pit supposedly undeserving recipients of disability insurance .(who Republicans claim are defrauding the program, threatening its financial foundations) against deserving recipients of retirement benefits (i.e., the elderly). Brown said that this is part of a broader GOP assault on the basic principles undergirding social insurance programs, and urge Dems to counter with an expansive moral defense of them.

Greg Sargent of WashingtonPost.com noted (7/7) that Republicans such as Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) have claimed the disability program is being “gamed” by “scalawags” and that a third of claims are bogus, putting the program in trouble.

SSDI benefits go to 9 mln Americans and average $1,130 a month, but two thirds of those who apply are denied benefits, said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. Social Security provides monthly benefits to nearly 58 mln retirees.

Brown and others say the financial issues can be solved with administrative fixes and with a minor change to the taxes that fund both the disability and the retirement portions of Social Security.

Congress has allowed such administrative changes 11 times before, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported (7/8).

Most workers pay 6.2% of their incomes for Social Security – 5.3% for the Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund and 0.9% to the SSDI trust fund. Raising the SSDI tax rate by 0.2 points would make SSDI solvent for the next 75 years, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance.

When incomes over $117,000 are not taxed for Social Security. But Brown and others say that lifting this “earnings cap” could end fears that the combined old-age and disability program will see reserves run out in 2033.

“The debate over Social Security should not be about how much we can cut from the program in order to balance the federal budget,” Brown said. “The debate over Social Security should not be about raising the retirement age or limiting benefits. The debate over Social Security should be about retirement security.”

W.V. POLLUTER FINED $11,000 IN CHEMICAL SPILL. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Freedom Industries $11,000 for a pair of workplace safety violations tied to the leak of roughly 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM into Elk River (1/9), poisoning the water supply for the Charleston, W.V., area and leaving 300,000 residents without clean water for several days.

The Charleston Gazette reported (7/7) that OSHA fined Freedom Industries $7,000 for keeping storage tanks containing crude MCHM behind a diked wall that was not liquid tight. The agency also fined Freedom Industries $4,000 for failing to have standard railings on an elevated platform. Inspectors classified both of those citations as “serious,” meaning the workplace hazards could cause an accident or illness that would most likely result in death or serious physical harm.

OSHA also issued to Freedom one “other-than-serious” citation, alleging the company did not properly label one of its chemical storage tanks at the Elk River site. OSHA said that one of the tanks — not the one that leaked on 1/9 — was labeled as containing glycerin, when it actually contained MCHM.

“OSHA issued the citations on July 3. Freedom can pay the fines, seek a meeting to discuss the citations with the OSHA area director, or appeal the matter to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. Freedom Industries did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”

“Too busy laughing, I guess,” Charles P. Pierce noted at Esquire.com (7/8).

GREEN ENERGY PROVIDES 1/3 OF GERMANY’S POWER. Renewable energy accounted for approximately 31% of Germany’s electricity generation in the first half of 2014, thanks to favorable weather and record production from solar and wind power, ThinkProgress reported.

Non-hydro renewables made up 27% of the country’s power, up from 24% last year, according to the Fraunhofer Institute. For the first time, renewable energy sources accounted for a larger portion of electricity production than brown coal.

Approximately 13% of US electricity powered by renewables at the end of 2013, roughly half of Germany’s rate.

Germany has an ambitious plan to achieve 80% renewable energy generation by 2050.

Wind and solar in particular saw substantial gains over the same time last year. Solar grew by 28% in the first half of 2014 compared to 2013 and wind power grew by 19% over the same period last year. “Solar and wind alone made up a whopping 17% of power generation, up from around 12-13 percent in the past few years,” reported Renewables International.

Germany set a solar power record in June, generating 50% of its overall electricity demand from solar for part of one day. And in May, renewable energy sources combined to account for 75% of power demand for part of a day.

In comparison, approximately 13% of US electricity supply was powered by renewables as of the end of 2013, roughly half of Germany’s rate.

Germany has an ambitious plan to achieve 80% renewable energy generation by 2050.

STATE CREDITS CONTRACEPTIVES IN COLO. TEEN BIRTH RATE PLUNGE. Colorado’s teen birth rate dropped 40% in five years, when a donor-funded state initiative provided 30,000 free or low-cost contraceptive devices to low-income women, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced (7/3), according to the Denver Post.

The decline in births among girls 15 to 19 years old served by the program accounted for three-quarters of the overall decline in the Colorado teen birth rate, the state said in a news release.

That rate has fallen from 37 births per 1,000 girls in 2009 to 22 in 2013, officials said.

The teen abortion rate dropped 35% from 2009 to 2012 in those counties where the initiative is in place, Hickenlooper said.

The family-planning program has saved $5.68 in Medicaid costs for every dollar spent on the contraceptives, the state said. The state has saved millions in health care expenditures — $42.5 mln in public funds in 2010 alone based on the latest available data.

The decline improved Colorado’s standing among states from having the 29th-lowest teen birth rate in 2008 to being ranked 19th among states and the District of Columbia in 2012.

Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of public policy for the conservative Christian ministry Focus on the Family, said she was skeptical of the state’s claim that increased access to IUDs and other birth control caused the steep decline in teen birth rates.

Earll said she found it offensive that the state was dispensing IUDs and that teens don’t need to be accompanied by an adult to receive these forms of contraceptives. “It totally undermines parental rights,” Earll told the Post.

HOUSE WILL SPEND MORE PROBING BENGHAZI AGAIN THAN ETHICS, VETS, BUDGET OR SCIENCE. House Republicans plan to spend as much as $3.3 mln for the special committee to investigate the September 2011 attacks against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. That’s more than lawmakers appropriated for committees dedicated to investigating ethics and helping US veterans over an entire 12-month period.

ThinkProgress.org analyzed House spending on 20 permanent committees from 1/1/13 to 1/1/14 and found that, since Benghazi committee’s full-year equivalent budget would be an estimated $5.6 mln, its investigation will cost more than the budgets of nine other House committees, including Rules ($2,857,408), Small Business ($2,992,688), Ethics ($3,020,459), Veterans’ Affairs ($3,048,546), Intelligence ($4,389,758), House Administration ($4,600,560), Agriculture: $5,036,187, Budget ($5,138,824) and Science, Space, and Technology ($5,282,755).

Igor Volsky noted at ThinkProgress that the Benghazi committee, which House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed to put to a vote after facing political pressure from conservatives, comes after the House and Senate already held numerous hearings on the attacks, interviewed scores of witnesses, and received thousands of documents from the Obama administration. Seven congressional investigations have looked into the Benghazi attacks since 2012, including the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, House Armed Services Committee, House and Senate Intelligence Committees, Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. These investigations consumed 13 public hearings, 50 member and staff briefings, and over 25,000 pages of documents, White House officials estimate.

In March, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Elizabeth King said in a letter to Congress that the Pentagon and other government agencies had spent “millions of dollars” complying with the investigations.

DEMS CAN WIN WITH POPULISM — IF THEY PLAY IT RIGHT. Democrats’ best chance to win in the 2014 mid-term election is to focus on economic populism, a recent poll from AP-GfK suggests.

The most popular description for the GOP, according to the nationwide poll of 1,354 adults conducted 5/16-19, is “Supports wealthy/Business/Not for the people” (21%). That’s by far the prevailing view of the Republican Party, followed by “That’s their party/Who they vote for/Agree with on issues” (9%).

The top description for Democrats is pretty much the inverse — that they are “for the people” or “for working people” (25%), followed by “Liberal/Left-wing/Progressive” (24%).

Aaron Blake noted at WashingtonPost.com (7/7), “This is hardly a foolproof measure, and there could be some people who don’t view the GOP’s pro-business reputation as necessarily a bad thing. But we would argue that, when it comes to the voting booth, that reputation doesn’t help — especially given how many people of all political stripes think the economic system is rigged.

“It’s pretty clear that much of the GOP’s perception problem has to do with it being viewed as the party of and for the wealthy, while Democrats are viewed as being much more ‘for the people.’ It’s no coincidence that the opposing views on this subject rank No. 1 for both sides.

“But — and this is a big but — just because this might well be Democrats’ best argument in 2014 doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Indeed, Democrats seem to have tried a bunch of different ways to press this idea, including the Koch brothers strategy, income inequality, and now — having largely moved past both of those — a more general pro-middle class message. All three are aimed at creating a contrast in an area that works in Democrats’ favor.”

Blake concluded, “But they don’t seem to have found their silver bullet just yet. And merely talking about a political issue doesn’t make it relevant to the people’s votes.”

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2014


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