After the president issued a budget to slash and burn environmental, labor and educational programs, the guy responsible for the thing, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, contended those financial massacres are the heart’s desire of the “steelworker in Ohio, the coal-mining family in West Virginia, the mother of two in Detroit.”
Mulvaney asserted that members of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), coal miners and urban parents are eager to kill off Sesame Street’s Big Bird, drink lead-laden water, to breathe cough-inducing air and to work among life-threatening dangers.
This illustrates a complete lack of knowledge of the working and living conditions of huge swaths of Americans. Big Bird and Mister Rogers are way more popular than members of Congress. Americans would much rather pay their freight than the wages of politicians.
Americans are horrified by the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, and are willing to invest in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would prevent such health hazards. And steelworkers and coal miners have seen dismemberment and death on the job and don’t want the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) eliminated or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) decimated.
Americans balk at a budget that renders them less safe in their homes and workplaces.
The entire function of the CSB, which Mulvaney claims Americans want abolished, is worker and public safety. It investigates catastrophic incidents and recommends changes to prevent recurrence. It doesn’t fine corporations or revoke licenses. It advocates for safety. Its annual budget is $11 million. Not billion, $11 million.
Many incidents the CSB investigates are calamities. In 2005, a Texas City refinery, then owned by BP, exploded. The blast killed 15 workers and injured 180. Many of those killed were receiving training in trailers located near the unit that detonated. The CSB recommended refiners conduct instruction as far as possible away from dangerous processes, and the industry has largely complied.
It’s not just workers injured in these incidents. More than 15,000 Richmond, Calif., residents sought medical treatment for breathing problems, chest pain, sore throats and headaches after an Aug. 6, 2012 fire at a Chevron refinery sent toxic smoke billowing for 10 miles. Residents sheltered in place, but the smoke still seeped into buildings. Among the many recommendations CSB made after investigating this incident was that refineries replace pipes made of a material susceptible to corrosion, which again, the industry has tried to do.
After a 2015 explosion at an ExxonMobil Corp. refinery in Torrance, Calif., that injured two workers, the CSB found a much deadlier incident had been narrowly averted. Large pieces of debris from the blast that had the force of a 1.7 magnitude earthquake had nearly struck a tank containing thousands of pounds of deadly hydrofluoric acid. The explosion rained chemical ash around the plant for two miles. Release of the acid into the atmosphere could have chemically burned or killed everything living in that area.
The residents of Texas City, Torrance and Richmond don’t want the administration to evaporate the CSB. Nor do workers at refineries and chemical plants. And neither do refinery owners.
“I don’t think anyone in the industry wants to see the Chemical Safety Board be abolished,” Stephen Brown, a vice president with Tesoro Corp., told Bloomberg.
This endorsement of the CSB came from an executive of a corporation that the agency concluded in 2014 conducted deficient oversight of its Anacortes, Wash., refinery, continuing to operate it with severely cracked and degraded equipment to the point where an explosion occurred on April 2, 2010, killing seven workers.
The cost of an incident like the one at Anacortes could be more than $100 million, by the time the corporation pays fines, victim compensation and reconstruction fees. That’s more than nine times the annual budget of the CSB. And the money doesn’t erase victims’ pain.
Mike Wright, director of the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Department, explained how crucial the CSB is to workers and community members:
“Its recommendations have certainly made the industry safer and helped prevent major chemical accidents. The CSB’s work has saved the lives of workers in chemical plants and oil refineries, residents who could be caught in a toxic cloud, even students in high school chemistry labs.”
The CSB was created in 1990 as part of the Clean Air Act, and that might be its Achilles heel. The agency suffering the hugest hack in the Mulvaney budget is the EPA. It would lose nearly a third of its funding.
A big reason for that is the administration’s rejection of science showing the human impact on climate change.
“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward – we’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that,” Mulvaney said.
Even though the administration wants to cut 13 percent of the Education Department budget and eliminate Public Broadcasting, which is dedicated to education, Steelworkers have long been smart enough to know that saving the environment generates jobs. That is why the USW joined with the Sierra Club in 2006 to create the BlueGreen Alliance, which promotes creation of good, green jobs manufacturing and installing the likes of wind turbines and solar panels.
When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer introduced Mulvaney to reporters last week, he said, “The President’s budget blueprint keeps his promise to put America’s security first.”
The budget blueprint does not do that. A less educated public is an insecure public. Americans sickened by polluted air and water are weak and vulnerable. Workers threatened by explosions and fires on the job are unsafe. As are their communities. This budget fails at placing America’s security first.
Leo Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers