The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}


Congress Launches Probe Of Meatpacking Worker Fatalities In Pandemic

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

A key congressional panel launched an investigation this week into the wave of COVID-19 infections that killed hundreds of workers at meatpacking plants nationwide last year and highlighted longstanding hazards in the industry.

Since the start of the pandemic, the meat industry has struggled to contain the virus in its facilities, and plants in Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas have endured some of the biggest workplace outbreaks in the country.

The meat companies' employees, many of them immigrants and refugees, slice pig bellies or cut up chicken carcasses in close quarters. Many of them don't speak English and aren't granted paid sick leave. To date, more than 50,000 meatpacking workers have been infected and at least 250 have died, according to a ProPublica tally.

The congressional investigation, opened by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, will examine the role of JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, three of the nation's largest meat companies, which, the subcommittee said, had “refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers" and had “shown a callous disregard for workers' health."

The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House.

In response to the subcommittee's announcement, officials for JBS and Tyson said that the companies had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to implement coronavirus protections and to temporarily increase pay and benefits, and they looked forward to discussing their pandemic safety efforts with the panel. Smithfield said in a statement that it had also taken “extraordinary measures" to protect employees from the virus, spending more than $700 million on workplace modifications, testing and equipment.

The House subcommittee noted that reports from a variety of news organizations had illuminated problems with how the meatpacking companies handled the pandemic, and with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's enforcement efforts. The subcommittee cited ProPublica's reporting on how meat companies blindsided local public health departments, and on Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts' efforts to intervene when local health officials tried to temporarily shutter a JBS plant amid an outbreak.

ProPublica has also documented how meat companies ignored years of warnings from the federal government about how a pandemic could tear through a food processing facility, and chronicled the role that meatpacking plants like a Tyson pork facility in Waterloo, Iowa, have played in spreading the virus to the surrounding community.

The subcommittee's inquiry will also scrutinize the federal government's shortcomings in protecting meatpacking workers. “Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths," according to the subcommittee's letter to OSHA.

The subcommittee also said that the agency had issued only a “few meager fines" and “failed to show urgency in addressing safety hazards at the meatpacking facilities it inspected." The letter noted that OSHA had received complaints about JBS and Smithfield plants months before the agency conducted inspections.

David Seligman, a lawyer who helped meatpacking workers in Pennsylvania file a lawsuit against OSHA during the pandemic, said he hopes the subcommittee's efforts are “just one of the initial steps" to holding companies accountable and ensuring workers are safe. “The harm inflicted on meat-processing workers during this pandemic, in service of the profits of corporate meat-packing companies and under a government that seemed happy to turn a blind eye, is a grave scandal," Seligman wrote in an email.

In a statement, a Department of Labor spokesperson said that the subcommittee's inquiry is “focused on the Trump administration's actions surrounding the protection of workers from COVID-19 related risks," and the agency is committed to protecting workers, and that new guidance on coronavirus enforcement that was issued in late January will serve as a “first step."

In its Feb. 1 letters to OSHA, JBS, Tyson and Smithfield, the subcommittee has requested documents related to government inspections at meatpacking plants and COVID-19 complaints lodged with the companies. OSHA was asked to brief the subcommittee by Feb. 15.

Meatpacking Lobby Wrote Trump’s Executive Order To Keep Plants Open

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In late April, as COVID-19 raced through meatpacking plants sickening and killing workers, President Donald Trump issued a controversial executive order aimed at keeping the plants open to supply food to American consumers.

It was a relief for the nation's meatpackers who were being urged, or ordered, to suspend production by local health officials worried about the spread of the coronavirus.

Read Now Show less

Meatpacking Companies Dismissed Years Of Warning About Pandemic Potential

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

At the end of June, with hundreds of his workers already infected with COVID-19 and several dead, Kenneth Sullivan, the CEO of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, sent a pointed letter to two U.S. senators who had launched an investigation into outbreaks in meatpacking plants and industry warnings of an impending food shortage.

Read Now Show less

OSHA Failed These Meatpacking Workers — And Now They’re Suing Agency

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Frustrated by the lack of response to their complaint of the “imminent danger" posed by COVID-19, three meatpacking workers at the Maid-Rite Specialty Foods plant outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, took the unusual step Wednesday of filing a lawsuit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia.

The lawsuit, filed in a Pennsylvania federal court, accuses the government of failing to protect essential workers from dangerous conditions that could expose them to the coronavirus. It relies on a rarely used provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act that allows workers to sue the secretary of labor for “arbitrarily or capriciously" failing to counteract imminent dangers.

Read Now Show less

Emails Reveal Chaos In Meatpackers’ Response To Virus Outbreaks

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

For weeks, Rachel Willard, the county health director in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, had watched with alarm as COVID-19 cases rolled in from the Tyson Foods chicken plant in the center of town. Then Tyson hired a private company to take over testing, and the information suddenly slowed to a trickle.

Blinded to the burgeoning health crisis, Willard and her small staff grew increasingly agitated. The outbreak had already spread across 100 miles of the North Carolina piedmont, and two workers had died. But nearly a week after Tyson's testing ended in May, the county health agency had received less than 20 percent of the results. The little information it did receive was missing phone numbers and other data, hindering critical efforts to follow up with infected workers, to tell them to isolate and to trace their contacts.

Read Now Show less

Virus Exploded After Nebraska Governor Refused To Close Meatpacking Plant

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

On Tuesday, March 31, an emergency room doctor at the main hospital in Grand Island, Nebraska, sent an urgent email to the regional health department: “Numerous patients" from the JBS beef packing plant had tested positive for COVID-19. The plant, he feared, was becoming a coronavirus “hot spot."

The town's medical clinics were also reporting a rapid increase in cases among JBS workers. The next day, Dr. Rebecca Steinke, a family medicine doctor at one of the clinics, wrote to the department's director: “Our message is really that JBS should shut down for 2 weeks and have a solid screening plan before re-opening."

Read Now Show less

Doctor Who Treated Immigrant Children Reported Serious Problems In Shelters

Inside a weathered green group home in southern New Jersey, Yosary grew weaker and weaker. She felt tired all the time, and when she got out of bed in the morning, she sometimes became so dizzy she needed to lie back down. Bruises started appearing all over her body. She craved ice, chewing cups of it whenever she could.

For months, the slender 15-year-old, who’d fled Honduras with her 2-year-old son, had been reporting her symptoms to the shelter’s staff. But they dismissed her pleas for help, she said: She was dizzy because she’d just stood up too fast. Her bruises? She probably bumped into something and didn’t remember. Chewing ice was a bad habit she needed to break.

By the time someone finally took her to one of the shelter’s pediatricians last summer, Yosary was in such bad shape she had to be hooked up to an IV at a local hospital. The pediatrician, Elana Levites-Agababa, recognized the telltale signs of severe anemia, which, untreated, could have resulted in heart failure and damage to other organs. The staff should have known — the teen’s history of anemia was documented in the shelter’s records.

“I was devastated by the care she got,” Levites-Agababa said. “Her hospitalization could likely have been prevented if she had been brought in when she first started raising concerns that she needed to see a doctor.”

For Levites-Agababa, a pediatrician for CAMcare, it was another alarming lapse. For months, she’d been noticing a lax attitude about the medical needs of children at the federally funded immigrant youth shelters run by the Center for Family Services, a nonprofit based in Camden, New Jersey. So, she decided to review the charts of the 90 CFS patients the community health center had seen.

Children, including infants, were showing up as many as 10 weeks late for their booster vaccines, increasing their risk of contracting infectious diseases, she said. There were an unusual number of no-shows and cancellations, even though nearly all the health center’s clinics are within a half-hour of the shelters. And the shelters routinely failed to schedule the prescribed follow-up appointments after emergency room visits, psychiatric admissions and hospitalizations.

She reported her findings to CAMcare, which had been hired by CFS to provide medical care for its immigrant youth, many of whom crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking asylum. But as months passed and the situation didn’t improve, Levites-Agababa escalated her concerns, filing complaints earlier this year with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and authorities in New Jersey, which separately regulate the shelters.

While she awaited a response, Levites-Agababa said the medical office received a troubling new request: CFS wanted doctors’ approval to physically restrain kids in its care.

“They feel no obligation to provide appropriate care to the kids or follow any recommendations by a medical provider,” said Levites-Agababa, who has worked at CAMcare since 2015. “And that’s demonstrated over and over again to the point where it interferes with our ability to practice medicine.”

CFS denied wrongdoing but declined to answer specific questions.

“The program’s main objective is the safety and wellbeing of all of the children under our care,” Eileen Henderson, the chief operating officer, said in an email. “CFS continues to work with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and our medical providers to ensure that the children receive proper medical treatment in accordance with our directives from ORR.”

The care of immigrant children in U.S. custody has faced intense scrutiny over the past year as thousands of sexual abuse allegations and reports of personal enrichment by some nonprofit operators have raised questions about the federal government’s ability to monitor its network of about 100 shelters.

Now, a surge of families and unaccompanied children at the border is testing the system as never before. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was already scrambling to find new places to house immigrant kids after policies by the administration of President Donald Trump resulted in more children being housed for longer periods. Trump’s recent ousting of his top immigration officials is expected to herald even harsher policies — and possibly a ramped-up effort to separate children from their families.

There were 13,500 children in shelters as of the end of February, more than five times as many as there were two years ago. On Wednesday, Trump requested congressional funding to nearly double the number of beds.

The medical care for these new arrivals became a focus in December, when two ill children died in Customs and Border Protection custody near the border. But unlike those children, Yosary, who asked that only her first name be used, developed her symptoms long after crossing the border. She and the other children Levites-Agababa saw were in a place that was supposed to be safe, staffed by youth care workers trained to recognize medical symptoms and overseen by federal and state agencies responsible for health and social services.

ORR declined a request to interview its medical staff. The agency said that after investigating Levites-Agababa’s complaint, it temporarily suspended CFS from receiving new kids until problems were addressed. But it didn’t say when the suspension happened, how long it lasted or what CFS did to fix the problems.

ORR also wouldn’t say how many complaints about medical care it has received but said that “physicians and nurses who have medical-related concerns often reach out” to staff to discuss and resolve them.

The lapses documented by Levites-Agababa raise critical questions about the patchwork of state regulations that ORR relies on to monitor the shelters, which range from tiny group homes to 2,000-bed facilities and are often tucked in small towns and remote locations. On Tuesday, a 16-year-old boy died shortly after arriving at an ORR shelter in Texas.

Levites-Agababa’s concerns were recently substantiated by New Jersey regulators, who found numerous failures in CFS’ care of immigrant children. But despite the violations, the state agency lacks the ability to fine the shelter operator or remove kids from its care.

Levites-Agababa said she fears she could be fired for speaking out but agreed to go public in hopes of drawing attention to the care of children in the shelters.

CAMcare did not return calls for comment.

With access to children’s health records strictly limited, it’s hard to tell if the problems Levites-Agababa reported are isolated or emblematic of more widespread issues. A review last year of the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in California found similar problems with immigrant teens’ access to medical care, including a failure “to follow up on serious injuries” and long waits for urgent medical needs.

Concerns over such lapses have prompted the HHS inspector general to conduct a nationwide review of the medical and mental health care provided in the youth shelters.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed serious concern about the mental health consequences of detaining children, noting that even short periods can cause psychological trauma and carry lifelong consequences. But its policy statement doesn’t mention the ORR shelters, which were designed as community-based alternatives to detention but are now holding children for longer amounts of time.

Levites-Agababa said her experience has led her to believe that pediatricians should take a firmer stand. She compared it to when doctors started refusing to participate in lethal injections, deciding that their role in relieving suffering was outweighed by the harm of aiding execution. Levites-Agababa said she similarly believes that providing medical care to immigrant kids does not outweigh the traumatic effects of being held in a shelter.

“They are using us as a medical rubber stamp to keep these kids detained,” she said. “And by us participating in this without objection, we’re allowing for the detention of thousands and thousands of kids to continue.”

Who monitors the care of immigrant children in shelters — and how vigilantly they do it — depends a lot on where the children end up.

All shelters must follow ORR rules, but the agency leans heavily on the states to license the facilities and ensure the children’s safety. And that has resulted in a haphazard set of standards.

In Texas, the shelters are considered residential child care centers and must follow stringent regulations set by child welfare officials. In Arizona, the shelters are deemed behavioral health facilities, with a more limited set of rules that hinder state inspections.

In New Jersey, child welfare officials, who normally oversee facilities with children, are prevented by statute from inspecting the immigrant youth shelters because they’re not funded by the state, said Tammori Petty, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

Instead, the ORR facilities are licensed as emergency homeless shelters and inspected by the department’s Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards. The rules permit children to live in the shelters as long as they’re part of a family. In the case of immigrant children, Petty said, the department decided that ORR qualifies because it provides custodial care to the children.

The bureaucratic restriction makes for an interesting juxtaposition. CFS’ immigrant youth shelters — which can’t be overseen by child welfare — are known as the Juntos program, the Spanish word for “together.” In contrast, the center’s crisis program for American teens, simply called the Together shelter, is regulated by the state’s child welfare agency.

“I’m concerned about the lack of state oversight, that these shelters are not being licensed by any state agency that looks into child care,” said Farrin Anello, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Under a federal court settlement, the shelters are required to provide routine medical care and emergency services, including a medical exam, immunizations and screening for infectious diseases within 48 hours of admission.

ORR’s guidelines further require shelter workers to observe children for signs of illness and to respond to nonemergency requests for medical attention within 24 to 48 hours. The shelters must notify ORR within four hours of an emergency room visit, review hospital discharge plans and follow doctors’ treatment recommendations.

But while ORR has the power to remove kids from shelters and cut off funding, it’s also desperate for beds, and any major reduction in capacity could create a crisis. Those conflicting priorities are why child advocates say state oversight is important.

The care delivered by the shelters has become more critical as their role has evolved. Originally, the shelters were viewed as short-term way stations where children would stay while the government located and vetted relatives who could care for them while their asylum cases were reviewed. But under the Trump administration, the average stay grew to three months last fall.

The New Jersey shelters have largely existed in obscurity even as last summer’s family separation crisis cast a spotlight on the government’s network of facilities, which have received $5 billion since rising numbers of unaccompanied minors started arriving in 2014.

CFS, which has provided social services in Camden and southern New Jersey for nearly 100 years, opened its first shelter for unaccompanied minors in 2017. It has since received nearly $11 million in federal funds. One group home behind a church in Burlington houses 20 kids ages 13 and 17. Another in Woodbury is designated for up to 10 teen mothers who cross the border with their children. The program was recently approved to open a third shelter near Atlantic City later this year.

A review of inspection records shows that before Levites-Agababa’s complaint, the Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards had cited the shelters for relatively minor violations: a loose toilet, a shower fixture that needed repair, a reminder to conduct monthly fire drills. Once last fall, it cited CFS for operating its Burlington shelter with an expired licensed and fire certificate. But the Department of Community Affairs later said the bureau simply hadn’t mailed the new license in time for the inspection.

New Jersey’s regulations for emergency homeless shelters contain little in regard to child welfare. The shelters must provide three meals a day, refer residents to medical care, report child abuse to the Department of Children and Families and have an undefined “sufficient number of competent staff” on-site to supervise the premises.

Police reports obtained by ProPublica show a few incidents that would typically draw additional scrutiny from regulators. In November, a 16-year-old boy ran away from the Burlington shelter. And last April, police responded to a report that a male staff member had made inappropriate comments and touched a girl while conducting an assessment in a closed office.

In other states, similar incidents have resulted in citations for failure to maintain supervision and proper boundaries around children. But the New Jersey inspection reports don’t mention any of these incidents.

Nor did the inspections address any medical issues. Department of Community Affairs officials insist they never received Levites-Agababa’s complaint. But after a referral of medical neglect by the Department of Children and Families, where Levites-Agababa had also complained, and several calls from ProPublica, an inspector visited the shelter in late March and found a number of violations.

CFS had failed to ensure that staff were properly trained to monitor changes in residents’ behavior, the inspector concluded. It had failed to ensure that staff understood how to handle emergencies. It had failed to arrange medical care after a resident developed a condition that required attention. It had failed to investigate and maintain records of incidents involving child endangerment. And it had failed to report child abuse and mistreatment to the state’s child welfare agency.

The “facility must exercise care in handling and documenting emergencies, including referring residents for medical care or other emergency services and maintaining records of any special medical needs or conditions, the prescribed regimen to be followed and the name and phone numbers of medical doctors to contact” in an emergency, the report said.

The Department of Community Affairs later said CFS had in fact submitted the child abuse report, attributing it to a paperwork mix-up at the bureau.

Still, while the bureau has OK’d CFS’ plan to fix the violations, it doesn’t have many other options. The only enforcement tool the bureau has at its disposal is to revoke the shelters’ licenses, which it has no plans to do.

The consequence of that? Instead of being regulated as homeless shelters, the facilities would be regulated as hotels according to New Jersey law. Under the state’s hotel statute, there are no rules regarding the care of children.

After arriving at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, Yosary received the first of what would be several iron infusions. Lying in the hospital bed, separated from her toddler and far from other family members who’d fled with her from Honduras, Yosary thought of her mother, who died of cancer when Yosary was very young.

“I was really scared,” she recalled. “I was thinking, I don’t want to die.”

Yosary had come to the United States last March to seek asylum. In Honduras, she said, she had been raped when she was 12 and became pregnant with her son. After the family reported the attack, she said, they began receiving a series of threats. The lines between the local gang and the police and military in her city seemed increasingly blurry.

As the child got older, Yosary said, her attacker started lingering near her house, and she feared her son would be kidnapped.

So Yosary decided to flee with several members of her family, carrying her toddler by foot, by truck and finally by inflatable raft across the Rio Grande. After finding Border Patrol agents, she was taken to a processing station, where she was separated from the rest of her family and sent with her son to CFS’ mother-and-children’s home in New Jersey.

The first few months she felt fine, she said. But by late spring, she started feeling dizzy and sleepy all the time, and she noticed the bruises popping up on her legs and arms.

“I told them several times,” she said. “But they wouldn’t take me seriously.”

Yosary began to feel trapped inside the shelter. There were only three other girls with their babies there, she said. And they were rarely allowed out of the home even to get fresh air. Her only connections to the outside world were two brief calls a week with family members in the same precarious immigration situation.

Finally, there was a meeting at the home that included outside staff members. Yosary told one of them about the bruises.

But even in the doctor’s office and hospital, Yosary said, CFS staff wouldn’t let her talk to the doctor alone. “There was always somebody with me,” she said.

Levites-Agababa said this was a recurring problem with patients in the program, and she worried that it might make kids afraid to be forthcoming about their care in the shelter.

“When I insisted that chaperones leave the exam room so I could talk to the kid alone, they refused to leave and insisted it was policy,” she said.

After a few days, Yosary was discharged from the hospital with instructions to get another IV treatment. But CFS failed to inform CAMcare about the treatment, according to Levites-Agababa’s complaint.

The failure to schedule follow-up visits and heed doctors’ recommendations to see specialists or get lab tests or radiological studies became routine, said Levites-Agababa, who confronted CFS staff over the lapses.

At first, she said, shelter staff told her that ORR wouldn’t approve them, but she later learned that CFS hadn’t even submitted some of the orders.

A nurse at CAMcare, who asked not be identified, echoed Levites-Agababa’s concerns. “There were many appointments I had that got declined or they no-showed,” the nurse said. Another CAMcare doctor said that she was aware of the issues but didn’t have enough information to speak about them.

In some cases, Levites-Agababa said, the mothers of the babies actually had vaccination records from their home countries, but shelter staff failed to bring the paperwork to the initial medical exam.

“The poor teenage mom has painstakingly traveled through numerous countries and protected [the vaccination record] to bring it with the kid,” she said, “and they don’t even bring it to the visit?”

Yosary, who has since settled in Alabama with her older sister, said she couldn’t forget her five months in the shelter and wanted to speak up to help other girls there.

“I hope they don’t have to go through what I went through,” she said, her curly-headed toddler resting against her, “because being locked in that place, it was horrible.”

Even now, she said, she is reminded of the lack of concern about her well-being. According to ORR’s rules, upon release, shelters are supposed to give unaccompanied minors a copy of their medical records.

Yosary’s sister, who didn’t want her name used to protect the family, took out a thick manila envelope containing the records for Yosary and her son. While some pages are printed clearly, page after page are illegible.

“They told me these are the papers from the school, from the hospital, from everything,” Yosary said. But the printer had apparently run out of ink. “You couldn’t even read it,” she said. “One of the papers even looked blank.”

Back in New Jersey, Levites-Agababa said she worries about “what’s happening systemically throughout the United States in all these countless other homes” and whether other doctors will be emboldened to complain. “I just don’t know who else could raise this concern to the public or to ORR.”

Yosary and her sister said they’re glad Levites-Agababa decided to speak up.

“Nobody from the shelter is going to report anything,” said Yosary’s sister, who also stayed in a federal youth shelter when she arrived.

“I wouldn’t have done it because I’m an immigrant here,” Yosary said.

“And,” her sister added, “she doesn’t know the rules or the laws.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

IMAGE: Photo of immigrant child by Tim Brown via Flickr.

TSA Reveals Passenger Complaints…Four Years Later

by Michael Grabell, ProPublica.

From intrusive pat-downs to body scans to perceived profiling, the Transportation Security Administration always seems to be the target of complaints.

Here’s another one: It took the TSA almost four years to tell me what people complained about — in 2008.

In my first week at ProPublica in June 2008, I filed a public records request for the agency’s complaint files. Such records can provide good fodder for investigations.

For example, amid the brouhaha over the agency’s introduction of intensive full-body pat-downs in 2004, I requested complaints and discovered an untold story of the pain and humiliation suffered by rape victims and breast cancer survivors. In one incident that I found from that request — while I was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News — a woman complained that a screener asked her to remove her prosthetic breast to be swabbed for explosives.

When I made a similar FOIA request in 2008, I assumed the TSA would respond in a few months. Government agencies have about a month to respond to public record requests, though they often take longer. I figured even if their response took months, I’d be able to repeat it regularly to get a timely, inside look as to what passengers were complaining about and find out about incidents that required some more digging.

Boy, was I wrong.

After waiting and waiting and narrowing my request and some more waiting, the files finally arrived this week.

The information is now four years old — but it echoes much of what people are still complaining about.

For instance, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was asked to walk through security and fell at Orlando International Airport.

In another case, someone expressed concerns about a lethal plastic knife that can reportedly pass through metal detectors. (This was two years before the TSA widely deployed body scanners, which can detect plastic.)

In another complaint, a man flying to Cancun demanded an investigation after finding that the bottle of Jack Daniels he packed in his luggage was empty by the time he arrived.

Rather than let the files gather dust at the bottom of my desk drawer, I’m posting them for your perusal.

Why did the files take so long to release? Various FOIA officers over the years blamed the delay on the agency’s backlog and on the volume of the records that had to be reviewed. It turned out to be 87 pages.

When I reached out again today to the TSA, spokeswoman Lorie Dankers provided a statement pointing out that the agency has received an average of more than 800 requests annually over the past four years. Then the TSA apologized.

“TSA should have responded to ProPublica’s request sooner,” the statement said. “TSA currently is working on 12 requests that are more than three years old. The agency is working diligently to finalize and respond to these requests.”

I just filed my request for the 2012 complaints.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until 2016 to see those.


How The Stimulus Revived The Electric Car

by Michael Grabell, ProPublica.

This story was adapted from “Money Well Spent?: The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History,” which will be published Tuesday by PublicAffairs.


A common criticism of President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package has been that it failed to produce anything 2013 that while the New Deal built bridges and dams, all the stimulus did was fill some potholes and create temporary jobs.

Don’t tell that to Annette Herrera. She was 50 when the auto supplier she worked for in Westland, Mich., closed its factory and moved the work to Mexico. Then, after being unemployed for 2½ years, she got a job in October 2010 with A123 Systems, which had received $250 million in stimulus money to help open a new lithium-ion battery plant in nearby Romulus, Mich.

“The first thing I did was call my husband and tell him, ‘You’re never going to guess! I got a job!'” Herrera recalled. “And then it was like celebration time.”

One success the Obama administration can duly claim is the rebirth of the electric-car industry in the United States. Automakers have unveiled a number of mass-market electric cars, which have seen small but rising sales. Battery and parts manufacturers are building 30 factories, creating thousands of new jobs. A123 has hired 700 workers at Herrera’s plant and a second one in nearby Livonia, and plans to hire a couple thousand more people over the next few years.

If it wasn’t for the stimulus, the companies say, they would have built these plants overseas.

It was all part of an effort to promote “green” manufacturing and put a million electric cars on the road by 2015.

The question is: Will it last?

Elkhart, Ind., once believed it would. It saw electric vehicles as its salvation after watching its unemployment rate hit 20 percent. Eager to seed a new industry, the county witnessed electric-vehicle ventures sprout out of nowhere as the stimulus took off in 2009.

But by late summer 2011, what had sprouted were weeds. The parking lot of the Think electric-car plant was full of them, some more than a foot high growing from the cracks. Out front were two pickups and a motorcycle.

Hundreds of laid-off factory workers were supposed to have found jobs churning out the Norwegian company’s bug-like, plastic-bodied cars, which ran solely on electricity.

Today the Elkhart factory employs two. Its parent company filed for bankruptcy in June. Its largest shareholder and battery maker, Ener1, which received $118 million in stimulus money, did the same last week.

A second life

Electric cars began appearing on California roads in the mid-1990s after state regulators mandated that a certain percentage of automakers’ fleets include zero-emissions vehicles.

But within a few years, they were deemed a failure by car companies, which stopped making them and took back those they had leased.

Much had changed in the eight years leading up the stimulus package. The lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries that weighed as much as 1,200 pounds were replaced with lithium-ion batteries that weighed as little as 400 pounds.

In the early 2000s, gas hadn’t even passed $2 a gallon. Less than a decade later, it was twice that. Toyota had proven the demand with its long waiting list for the Prius hybrid.

Government policy had changed, too, with a 2007 energy bill that increased fuel-efficiency standards and provided $25 billion in loans for automakers to upgrade their plants.

But until the economic stimulus package was passed in 2009, the manufacture of electric cars and their batteries in the United States was nearly nonexistent.

The United States had only two factories manufacturing less than 2 percent of the world’s advanced batteries. Most were made in Korea and Japan. In America, only Tesla manufactured an electric car 2014 which sold for a cool $100,000. Across the entire country, there were a mere 500 electric charging stations.

But as the stimulus kicked in, there was suddenly no better environment for the electric car to thrive.

With more than $2 billion in federal grants, matched by another $2 billion in private investment, the Obama administration was supporting electric cars from the mine to the garage.

Chemetall Foote Corp., which operates the only U.S. lithium mine, received $28 million to boost production at its plants in Nevada and North Carolina. Honeywell received $27 million to become the first domestic supplier of a conductive salt for lithium batteries. More than $1 billion was spent to open and expand battery factories, many of them in hard-luck towns across Michigan. Through a separate federal program, automakers received loans to retool their assembly lines.

Customers could receive a $7,500 tax credit for buying an electric car. The stimulus provided funding for 20,000 electric charging stations by 2013. In many cities, drivers could get a home charger for free.

Although electric cars would not make up for the generation-long loss of manufacturing jobs, at least not yet, it was novel to see companies creating jobs in the Rust Belt instead of outsourcing them.

In July, Johnson Controls opened the first U.S. factory to produce complete lithium-ion battery cells for electric vehicles. Compact Power is building a $300 million factory in Holland, Mich., to produce batteries for the Chevy Volt and the electric Ford Focus. A123 now supplies the luxury electric carmaker Fisker Automotive and the manufacturers of electric delivery trucks used by FedEx and Frito-Lay.”Quite simply, if we didn’t get that grant, we wouldn’t have built [the factory] in the U.S.,” A123 spokesman Dan Borgasano said.

The battery grants have created and saved more than 1,800 jobs for assembly workers, toolmakers and engineers, according to a ProPublica analysis of stimulus project reports filed by the companies. That number doesn’t include the workers who constructed the plants or those hired by the matching private investment the companies had to make to get the grants.

Killed again?

The problem: Consumers have been slow to embrace the electric car.

The price of the battery is still too high, and the price of gas is still too low, the Government Accountability Office warned in June 2009 before the grants were awarded. The starting price for the all-electric Nissan Leaf is $33,000, while the hybrid Volt sells for about $40,000 before tax credits 2014 far more than many middle-class families can afford.

About 40 percent of drivers didn’t have access to an outlet where they park their vehicles, the GAO noted.

“Although a mile driven on electricity is cheaper than one driven on gasoline,” the National Research Council reported, “it will likely take several decades before the upfront costs decline enough to be offset by lifetime fuel savings.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, though, was what the automobile represents in the American psyche: the freedom of the open road. While most people drive less than 40 miles per day, consumers want cars that they can also take on summer vacations 2014 and they don’t want to have to constantly worry about looking for a charging station.

The Leaf’s range is just 73 miles, according to the official government rating, well below the much-advertised 100 miles.

By the end of 2011, fewer than 18,000 Leafs and Volts had been sold in the United States.

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015. Even many in the industry say the
target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run. South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade. Even A123 had to lay off 125 workers in November 2014 though Borgasano says the company plans to rehire them all by June 2014 because Fisker reduced orders.

Dick Moore, the mayor of Elkhart, had hoped the area known for its recreational-vehicle factories would one day be not just the “RV Capital of the World” but the “EV Capital of the World” as well.

Navistar International had received $39 million in stimulus money to build 400 electric delivery trucks in the first year. But by early 2011, it had hired about 40 employees and assembled only 78 vehicles.

Think had rallied into 2011 with plans to start production in Elkhart earlier than expected. But in April, assembly work suddenly stopped as the plant awaited parts from Europe.

In June, Think’s parent company filed for bankruptcy. The decision left the Elkhart plant slouching toward extinction until the American subsidiary was purchased by a Russian entrepreneur who promised to restart production in early 2012.

But on Thursday, its battery maker, Ener1, also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, reporting that the demand for electric vehicles “did not develop as quickly as anticipated.”

Elkhart’s dream of becoming the EV capital?

Moore put it this way: “The fact that this hasn’t moved very quickly, that doesn’t bode well for that idea.”

The future

The fate of the electric car depends greatly on whether sales take off soon.

There are other factors, such as the price of gas and whether Congress approves proposed standards requiring automakers to raise the average fuel economy of their vehicles to 55 miles per gallon by 2025.

The electric car has always struggled with a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Automakers have been reluctant to build electric cars without consumer demand. But consumers won’t buy them until automakers develop cheaper, longer-range batteries.

One of the goals of the ongoing stimulus spending is to solve this problem. By 2015, the 30 battery and component factories will be able to produce 40 percent of the world’s batteries, according to the administration.

The investments would help manufacturers increase the batteries’ life from four years to 14 and cut their cost from $33,000 to $10,000, the administration said in a report on innovation. That would make the electric car more competitive.

Herrera noted that many people at the A123 factory believe they will never be able to afford the cars powered by the batteries they make. But, she says, “you never know.”

“When the flat-screen TVs first came out, they were way expensive, and now they’re reasonably priced,” she said. “I think that’s going to be the same thing with electric automobiles. This is a new product. It’s going to take time.”