andrew schneider investigates

August 7, 2008

Public health heroes take risks for all

There are people out there who have dedicated their professional lives to protecting the health and safety of the public. That “public” would include workers knowingly exposed to chemicals that will eventually kill them, consumers being sold products that will destroy their health and that of their children or entire communities poisoned by corporations who put profits well ahead of safety.

As an investigative reporter trying to cover the machinations of the world of public health it is these professionals who share their concerns over an unexpected occupational or public health hazard or a questionable government or corporate action. But of equal importance, these are the folks who help me master what a great friend has labeled a “vertical learning curve.”

I am amazed at how much I don’t know and how much I have to learn before I know enough to ask even the first question.

Who are these teachers who care enough to help me get my facts straight?
Most often they are epidemiologists, toxicologists, physicians, chemists, ethicists, investigators, nurses, union officials, regulators, professors, researchers and even a handful of lawyers. Most work for governments. The remainder are split almost evenly between those employed by industry and the academics, But one thing almost all have in common is their overwhelming, sometimes all-consuming, dedication to protecting public health. And the bottom line for me is that without their help most of my stories would never see newsprint or a spot on this blog.

Usually they fight their battle against government or corporate misdeeds or omissions quietly, behind the scenes. Because those whose actions they’re challenging make powerful enemies. But last month one of these heroes shared her concerns publicly, stood tall because she found something that couldn’t be kept quiet.

Celeste Monforton, is a former Department of Labor policy analyst and is now a lecturer and research associate at George Washington University’s School of Public Health. In early July, while digging through the fine print of a White House Web site, she found an arcane, brief notation that the Office of Management and Budget was reviewing a Labor Department plan to pretty much gut the toxic exposure limits that OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration instituted to protect workers.

Celeste Monforton and Libby Miner Les Skramstad

“There were nine words and an index number buried in the (OMB) Web site, pure bureaucratic gobbledygook, but they could change the way the government ensures the safety of the workers,” Monforton told me last month. She posted her discovery on the public health blog “The Pump Handle.”

The reference she found stated “Requirements for DOL Agencies’ Assessment of Occupational Health Risks.” She translated it in her blog: “In layman’s terms, it means workers’ health gets screwed.”

She determined that DOL had used outside contractors and that neither the agency’s own health and safety professionals nor those in OSHA and MSHA had even seen the plan.
By month’s end, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller had sent letters to the labor secretary asking what the secret plan was all about. And the Seattle PI, The Wasshington Post and the New York Times had picked up her story. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao mysterious, pro-industry plan is no longer a secret.

Monforton, with her freshly minted doctorate in public health (that most who knew her felt was unneeded) has been shaking the health and safety hornet’s nest for years.

When I first met her she was special assistant to Davitt McAteer, the administrator of the mine safety agency. McAteer had reacted strongly and with embarrassment to the P-I stories about the hundreds of dead and dying miners in Libby, Mont. What sent both the boss and his assistant through the ceiling was the fact that their agency, when it was called the Bureau of Mines, had known the miners at W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mine were repeatedly being exposed to lethal levels of asbestos and did nothing about it.

Promising that it would never happen again, McAteer agreed to Monforton’s request to see what was actually happened in mines where the material being pulled from the ground was contaminated with asbestos.

She went to Libby and said in the VFW bar talking to men who were dying. She had sample collected from the taconite mines in Michigan and Minnesota and the talc mines in upstate New York. She had samples from a Virginia vermiculite mine that a frightened miner had given her analyzed for asbestos and the lab told her “they were off the scale.”

But she was puzzled why earlier MSHA reports on that same mine found no asbestos. At late night, early morning and weekend meetings in diners and bars, she surreptitiously met with miners from who explained that the managers knew when the federal inspectors were coming and for the day, changed the digging to asbestos-free areas.

Within two weeks, she’d mustered a specially picked highly trained, dedicated team of safety inspectors, gave them mine maps on which the miners had marked the actual digging sites. The samples collected at a late night, unannounced inspection proved the mine was dangerous. Serious violations were filed against the mine, which was owned by a man who worked in the White House for Reagan and Kissinger and was also an assistant EPA administrator.

But the sanctions against the mine were stalled. Within 90 says, Bill Clinton was replaced by George W. Bush, and very little ever happened to the Virginia mine which is probably still producing vermiculite

Monforton says she will probably not return to government employ.

“We need public health specialists on the outside, watching, keeping track of what government and industry is really doing when it comes to protecting the public and then let everyone know what’s being done for them and to them,” she told me this morning.


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