THE LOOMING RISK OF TAILINGS DAMS

A tailings pond near the Syncrude oilsands mining operations, seen last fall. The oilsands region's tailings ponds — some of the largest in the world — now cover 176 square kilometres and hold enough liquid to fill the equivalent of 390,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“We just don’t know enough about the impact of tailings ponds on wildlife, including birds, to keep adding more.”

More than 240 people died this past January in Brazil when a Vale-owned tailings dam collapsed, unleashing a torrent of mud and mining waste on the countryside and the small town of Villa Ferteco, a kilometer (0.62 miles) away.

The Church of England invests in mining companies through its pensions for retired clergy. In the wake of the Vale tragedy, the Church and other funds with investments valued at about $14 trillion requested information from mining companies on their tailings dams, which are embankments constructed near mines to store mining waste in a liquid or solid form. The data from the companies has not been independently verified.

The investor review, which found at least 166 dams have had stability issues in the past, relied on companies’ disclosures about their dams holding tailings. Most Chinese and Indian miners did not provide information, leaving a significant hole in efforts to create a global picture of safety risks posed by these dams and avoid another disaster.

The Church of England and its investor partners said they plan to ask for fresh data from miners on a regular basis and release updates publicly.

The data show more than a third of the world’s tailings dams are at high risk of causing catastrophic damage to nearby communities if they crumble; that more tailings dams have been built in the past decade then during any previous decade; and that South Africa has the largest number of tailings dams built using an architectural method considered unsafe by many engineers.

The data was compiled by Reuters from publicly posted responses on corporate websites within the past three months to a survey sent out by the church this past spring to 726 mining companies around the world. Of these, over half did not respond or publish tailings information on their websites.

A quarter of the companies told the church-led investor initiative they did not have tailings facilities, and 38 companies requested more time or have not yet made their responses public, according to the church.

The Reuters data compilation reflects disclosures from 89 companies with mines in over 60 countries.

…There are more than 1,700 dams holding mine waste all over the world, and these are just the ones reported to the Church of England; it’s not known how many there are in total. MORE

 

The Radioactive Colonialism of BWXT

Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson’s 1938 painting “Radium Mine” pictures Great Bear Lake on Dene Territory, just out of view is the El Dorado radium and uranium mine which produced ore for the Manhattan Project. Image via Wikipedia.

According to BWXT Nuclear Energy Canada’s ten-year license application, the company has joined the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business to become “Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) certified.”

That doesn’t sit well with the Committee for Future Generations, a group of Dene and Cree people in so-called northern Saskatchewan. The richest deposits of uranium in the world are found in the Athabasca basin which supplies 20 percent of the global market and generates up to $1 billion annually. The Committee for Future generations is devoted to “Fighting the continued destruction of lands by uranium mining and tailings as well as the under-handed tactics of the nuclear industry to sell the storage of high-level nuclear waste on First Nations territory by bribing the weak links in our governance systems.”

BWXT Peterborough currently shaves down uranium fuel pellets and inserts them in zirconium rods that become fuel for CANDU nuclear reactors. And if they get their way they will soon process 53 percent of the nuclear fuel used in Canada by baking uranium yellowcake dioxide fuel powder into pellets. The proposal would significantly increase uranium air and water pollution in Peterborough. In response local group Citizens Against Radioactive Neighourhoods (CARN), formed to oppose the move to process the uranium 30 metres away from the Prince of Wales Public School.

According to the Committee for Future Generations, “Each segment of the nuclear fuel chain is presented as a compartmentalized island which is not accountable beyond a small set of parameters.”

“We can hear the Earth crying Kuh-t’ah! A ku se!” says Susnaghe Neneh in Dene. Kuh-t’ah! A ku se! means “enough”. Neneh’s grandfather passed on the teachings from his elders that forbid touching “the black stone” and warned that disturbing it would unleash demons upon the Earth. His grandfather’s trap-line is now obliterated and in its place is the world’s largest uranium mill owned by Cameco Corporation, formerly known as El Dorado.

El Dorado began extracting uranium in the 1930’s in Sahtu Dene territory on Great Bear Lake. Bags of uranium were transported by Dene men on river boat and rail to Port Hope Ontario where it was processed for use in the Manhattan Project which culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan in 1945.

In 1998 to mark the 53rd anniversary of the bombing, a group of ten Dene travelled to Hiroshima to apologize to the survivors and take responsibility for how the material taken from their territory was used to create such violence.

In 2013 Kirstin Scansen from the Nahithaw Woods Cree First Nation confronted BWXT (formerly GE-Hitachi) and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) at a meeting to review the operation of the Toronto uranium processing plant which holds a dual licence with the Peterborough facility. Scansen said, “The Denesuline men, who carried sacks of your beloved ‘natural uranium’… died horrible, painful deaths by cancer and bone cirrhosis, a condition where bone tissue dies and bones collapse.”

Scansen called out the “bullshit,” “lies,” and “propoganda” of BWXT and the CNSC who claim nuclear is safe. Scansen said she opposed the operation of BWXT because “it is a key cog in the machine that creates low, medium, and high level nuclear waste that humanity has absolutely no clue what to do with but is currently seeking to situate on Indigenous territories.”

It was when Scansen accused BWXT and the CNSC of hiding the connection between uranium mining, processing, and the proliferation of depleted uranium weapons and nuclear warheads – that CNSC president abruptly declared the meeting over and the commissioners walked out.

The uranium stolen from Dene and Cree territory that has coursed through downtown Peterborough for decades now sits on the shores of Lake Ontario at the Darlington and Pickering nuclear reactors. The high level spent fuel waste will be lethally radioactive for thousands of years. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is now attempting to bury Canada’s supply of nuclear waste in a deep geological repository on Indigenous territory. NWMO has narrowed down its search for a “willing host community” to the Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation Territory near the Bruce Nuclear Power generating station and Migisi Sahgaigan (Eagle Lake First Nation) territory.

As the people of Peterborough-Nogojiwanong consider BWXT’s request to expand their operation and renew their operating licence for ten more years, they may want to consider not just the local impacts of uranium pollution but also the ethical implications of colonialism and radiation exposure along the nuclear fuel chain from mining to processing to power generating to weapons and waste.

Naomi Klein: Climate Solutions That Neglect Inequality Are Doomed to Fail

A firefighter sprays burning trees with a hose

Firefighters spray water on burning trees in Santa Paula, California, on November 1, 2019.

California has warmed by approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit (3°F) over the last century. Heat waves are more common and increase the risk of wildfires in the state. What does climate justice look like, therefore, and for whom? Will cities grappling with environmental disasters consider the racial and economic inequalities that intersect with climate change action? Author and activist Naomi Klein has a few thoughts.

Laura Flanders: It’s been a year since the Camp Fire. You went back there; what did you find?

Naomi Klein: I spent a little time in Paradise, which, of course, was a community that was burned to the ground, almost. There are a few structures that survived, but whole neighborhoods were leveled. And I also went to Chico, which is just a few minutes down the road. And that is the place where the vast majority of the people from Paradise relocated. It’s a pretty small community, was just under 100,000 people and suddenly had 20,000 new residents.

So, a fifth bigger suddenly.

Right … I think one of the things that’s important to remember is that people from these communities behaved with incredible solidarity, incredible generosity and a real spirit of mutual aid as so often happens — actually, invariably happens after disasters. Whether it is Katrina or the Asian tsunami or Sandy, as humans, when we see our fellow humans suffering, we want to help, and Chico showed this very, very powerfully. But when you’re on, what you also see is how difficult it is to maintain that spirit of, “I will fight for people I don’t know.” When your public infrastructure is failing, when there wasn’t enough affordable housing before and now with those 20,000 additional people, rents are skyrocketing, the cost of living is skyrocketing. People are flipping their houses to turn a buck. Real estate speculation is happening. All kinds of, what I’ve called, disaster capitalism is happening.

And that, when people are saying, Wait a minute, some people are getting rich off of this and there aren’t the mental health supports to deal with the PTSD. I mean, 85 people died. A lot of people I spoke with in Chico talked about how when they were breathing the smoke, they knew they were breathing in the remains of people. And that’s just true, it was a crematorium. And so, the trauma of that has really not been addressed … these are just some of the ways where we see that if we don’t invest in the physical infrastructure and in the infrastructure of care that allows people to be their best selves in the long haul, we aren’t going to face these crises with the humanity that we need.

But there are a lot of people who say, “Got it, we understand. We have to deal with racism and homelessness and health care, but right now we have a pollution, environmental recycling, consumer problems. Let’s just focus with that, with plastics or with the supply chain.”

Right. And frankly, I think that that has been the approach of the mainstream green movement for a long time. Sometimes said explicitly, sometimes sort of sotto voce, which is like, “Look, let’s just save the planet first and then we’ll deal with, you know, racism and inequality and gender exclusion and sort of just wait your turn.” And that doesn’t go over very well because for people who are on the front lines of all of those other crises, they’re all existential. I mean, if you can’t feed your kids, if you’re losing your house, if you are facing violence, all of it is existential.

And so, we just have to accept that we live in a time of multiple overlapping intersecting crises and we have to figure out how to multitask, which means we need to figure out how to lower emissions in line with what scientists are telling us, which is really fast. And we need to do it in a way that builds a fair economy in the process. Because if we don’t, people are so overstressed and overburdened because of 40 years of neoliberal policy, that when you introduce the kinds of carbon-centric policies that try to pry this crisis apart from all the others, what that actually looks like is you’re going to pay more for gas, you’re going to pay more for electricity. We’re just going to have a market-based response. And so, it’s perceived as just one more thing that is making life impossible.

And the big boys will get away with it because they have expensive lawyers as they always do.

Right. And that sense of injustice, I think, animated the yellow vest movement in France, and you know that slogan, “You care about the end of the world. We care about the end of the month.” But I’ve heard versions of that for years where it’s like, “Well, we can’t deal with climate change because we have to put food on the table right now, we’re in a crisis.” And so if we don’t figure out a way to deal with climate change that doesn’t ask people to choose between the need to put food on the table, the need to care about the end of the month and the need to safeguard the living systems on which all of life depends, we’re going to lose.

And give them some sense that they’re living in a just society. So, what is Chico doing?

That sense of inequality is really key and it’s an important lesson of history because if we look at other moments when societies have changed very quickly, the original New Deal is one. Another one is the mobilization during the Second World War where people accepted rationing, accepted severe restrictions on the use of private vehicles because there was a limited amount of fuel. It was so central to those campaigns in the U.S. and in Britain that there be fairness that you had to see. This isn’t just regular working people who are being asked to change. Celebrities are having to change. Big corporations are having to change.

“Fair shares for all,” was one of the slogans. “Share, and share alike,” was another one. And we’ve never put justice at the center of our response to climate change at a governmental level. Of course, the environmental justice movement has been demanding this for decades, but our policies have never centered it. And I think that’s a big part of the reason people reject it.

So Chico did put at least affordable housing in their response. What did they actually do?

They weren’t able to. And so, what’s significant now is that … on the eve of the anniversary of the Camp Fire, a couple of members of Chico City Council unveiled their plan for a Green New Deal for Chico.

Which included those.

Which included affordable housing; which includes, as they put it, 21st-century clean transportation; which included food security, water security. Many of the themes that you’ve discussed over the years on this show. And I think it’s significant that this community that has been so much on the front lines of climate displacement because they know what it means to absorb such a huge new population that they said, “This is the infrastructure that we need in the future,” that we have locked in, which isn’t to say that we have locked in catastrophic levels of warming. If we decarbonize our economies very, very quickly, we can avoid those worst outcomes, or at least we hope we can. But what we know is that the future is rocky. The future has more of these types of disasters, more displacement. The future does mean that more people are going to be living on less land.

So how are we going to live together on less land without turning on each other? That is an absolutely central debate we need to have. Because what we’re actually seeing are a lot of politicians — including Donald Trump, but not just Trump — who are coming to power with their response, which is, “We’re going to fortress our borders. We’re going to create these scapegoats; we’re going to hoard what’s left. We’re going to protect our own.” I call this climate barbarism, but I think the right already has their response to the fact that we are entering this period, we’re in this period of mass displacement. What’s our response?

Are there places that you’re excited about?

I’ve been on the road for a couple of months now, talking with people who are trying to do this locally in cities like Austin [and] Seattle. Teresa Mosqueda is part of this council that passed a resolution calling for Seattle to have a Green New Deal with the boldest targets that we’ve ever seen from a city that already has a green reputation. But the significance of it is, the extent to which they’re not just centering justice, but holding themselves accountable to it. And this is what’s very interesting about the Seattle example in their Green [New] Deal resolution that passed unanimously through council; they called for a board to be created that will hold them to their commitments.

And on that board are eight members of front-line communities — activists from communities, mostly communities of color that have the dirty industries in their backyards, that are on the front lines of the impact, as well as climate scientists, as well as your more traditional green groups and trade unionists. Now that, I’ve never seen — having that many activists holding their representatives accountable. So that’s a model that I think we need to look at and say, “Okay, what would that look like in New York? What would that look like in Washington?”

So where do we stand on the movement front…? If you were to compare where we were on this question of, How we are connecting with each other in new ways, how are we?

Okay, so that’s interesting. I think what you said is absolutely true — that that was a more internationalist moment for progressive movements, than the moment that we’re in. In that, I think there was more infrastructure to support ongoing conversations across borders. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that trade unions were in that movement with both feet. I mean, the slogan, “Teamsters and turtles, together at last.” I think [that] was significant about the global justice movement that is very associated with Seattle….

We’ve seen it with Mexico and Paris, there’d been a lot before.

Yes. The big difference, I would say, was that you had some large trade unions that were financing that infrastructure that allowed these tables to be created where people had those international conversations.

And today?

I don’t think we have the anchor institutions that we need that are really investing in social movements so that we can have those … I don’t even think we’re doing it nationally, let alone internationally. So that’s a big difference. You said that it was multiracial. It wasn’t multiracial enough, to be honest. And I think that that is a place where progress has been made. So I think we’ve lost some ground and we’ve gained some ground in terms of understanding the centrality of building a truly multiracial movement.

I think, interestingly, that we saw on the platform a multiracial group of people talking, but the analysis of the role that white supremacy and slavery and incarceration were playing wasn’t integrated into the analysis.

It wasn’t strong enough. We didn’t have that as coherent analysis as informed by racial capitalism and theorists like Cedric Robinson.

But look at where we are in this moment with uprisings in Chile and Lebanon, Hong Kong…. We’re in a moment where things can tip very quickly because people have been pushed so far to the edge that almost anything can act as a spark. I mean, we saw it in Puerto Rico with leaked text messages. I’ve seen it in Haiti, in Ecuador with the loss of fuel subsidies. In Chile with a sudden increase in public transit costs. I think the level of corruption is so intense. Inequality is so outrageous that you just never know when that tip is going to happen.

And I think the lesson, and here’s where I think we’re in a better situation, and this is where the Green New Deal comes in, this moment of multiple uprisings, I think, shares a lot in common with 2009 and [20]10 after the financial crisis, when you have the movement of the squares in Europe, you had the Arab Spring and you had Occupy. And suddenly, societies are tipping, everybody’s in the streets, but there isn’t a clear demand of what the alternative to this failed model is. And I think that in the intervening years, so many people who were part of those movements have taken the responsibility of coming up with an alternative vision and an alternative plan really seriously.

And so now when we have one of those tipping moments, I don’t think we are going to make the same mistake of like opening up a vacuum that somebody else can exploit. Like the far right, which is what has happened in too many instances. And so that’s why I think it is so exciting that you have movements that are not just oppositional, but [propositional].

You started with saying natural human instincts were kind of broken by reality, by the condition of lives that we’ve made through our priority-setting at the government level. In a sense, I’m hearing we need to reclaim our gut instincts about things.

Well, I think what we need to do is figure out what are the policies that light up the best parts of ourselves, because we are complicated…. We are that person that rushes in to the disaster zone with everything we can carry and just wanting to help. And we are that person who just wants to hoard….

Don’t take too much.

… And protect. And different policies light up different parts of ourselves. And when you have a society in which economic precarity and competition are rampant, you light up the hoard and you suppress the share. And there are policies that create a baseline level of security. And this is why it is so important that we are talking about Medicare for All, we are talking about everybody’s right to education at every level. We are talking about the right to a living wage. We are talking about putting in policies that address that core insecurity that allow people to feel like they don’t just have to hoard. Because we’re going to be tested, and we are already being tested. And so, we have to figure out what kind of people are we going to be and what policies will help us be our best selves.  SOURCE

Carbon tax and TMX pipeline dominate top court’s winter session

The Supreme Court of Canada building, located in downtown Ottawa. Jan. 3, 2020. Jolson Lim/iPolitics

Just as it did when it ruled on Senate reform, prostitution and medically assisted death, the Supreme Court of Canada, as it begins its winter session, will take a leadership role on nation-building issues that could profoundly change Canada.

If dealing with climate change is the imminent crisis of the next decade, then three major cases are pivotal in determining how Canada manages emissions reduction and deals with the threat of a warming globe in the years to come.

Two of the cases, to be heard in March, are about the federal government’s carbon pricing scheme, a law that some say has already deeply divided the country.

Saskatchewan and Ontario are arguing that the federal government’s 2018 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act is unconstitutional.

The top court will have to determine if the so-called carbon tax is such an issue of national concern that it falls under Parliament’s constitutional authority to ensure peace, order and good government.

Saskatchewan, in its brief to the top court, states its own plan — a provincial responsibility, it says — is based on reducing emissions from its largest industrial emitters. The federal law imposes a fuel surcharge on consumers and producers

Saskatchewan lost at court of appeal in a 3-2 decision that found the federal law didn’t impose taxes, but regulatory charges meant to regulate behaviour, not raise revenues.

Ontario also lost at the Ontario Court of Appeal. Alberta is waiting for its own appeal court’s decision.

“The provinces are fully capable of regulating greenhouse gas emissions themselves, have already done so, and continue to do so,” Ontario’s brief says.

The third case about the conflict between environmental regulation and federal-provincial jurisdiction is to be heard next week at the top court.

British Columbia is asking whether it can regulate aspects of the environmental impact of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline extension, designed to transport oil from Alberta through B.C. to the coast for export to other countries.

A pipeline has existed for almost 40 years and has been pumping about 300,000 barrels of oil a day, an amount that will nearly triple with the expansion.

At the B.C. court of appeal, B.C. lost as that court unanimously ruled the proposed amendments by the B.C. government were aimed more at stopping the pipeline than regulating the environment. MORE

 

DNA damage linked to plastic additive

Worm study shows how a common chemical disrupts reproductive biology

Plastic toys floating on water.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the New York State Department of Health have discovered how a common plasticizer associated with human reproductive abnormalities likely does its damage at the molecular level.

For years, scientists have linked exposure to DEHP, short for di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate — a chemical added to many plastics to make them flexible — to increased risk of health problems, including reproductive abnormalities such as birth defects and male infertility.

Various U.S. federal and state agencies responded by passing laws limiting the percentage of DEHP and other phthalates in children’s toys, food packaging, drinking water, and other items, although DEHP can still be found in everyday products ranging from medical devices to rain gear to shampoo.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear what exactly DEHP does to the body and how much exposure can be considered safe.

To help answer those questions, Monica Colaiácovo, professor of genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues turned to Caenorhabditis elegans, worms that are a common model organism for studying human genetics and biology.

The findings, reported Jan. 9 in PLoS Geneticsshow that DEHP disrupts meiosis — the type of cell division that results in eggs and sperm — in several ways, leading to defects during egg formation and very early embryonic development.

“These are completely new findings and hopefully will shed some light as to how this phthalate impacts human reproductive health,” said Colaiácovo, who is senior author of the paper.

The insights could have implications for those who are pregnant or of reproductive age, for regulation of DEHP and other phthalates, and for the ongoing development of “green chemicals” intended to replace phthalates. MORE

Installing air filters in classrooms has surprisingly large educational benefits

$1,000 can raise a class’s test scores by as much as cutting class size by a third.

A teacher sits at a work table with two young students.

Students at Lavrentyev Secondary School No 130 in Novosibirsk, Russia, on December 20, 2019. Kirill Kukhmar\TASS via Getty Images

An emergency situation that turned out to be mostly a false alarm led a lot of schools in Los Angeles to install air filters, and something strange happened: Test scores went up. By a lot. And the gains were sustained in the subsequent year rather than fading away.

That’s what NYU’s Michael Gilraine finds in a new working paper titled “Air Filters, Pollution, and Student Achievement” that looks at the surprising consequences of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in 2015.

The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

If Gilraine’s result holds up to further scrutiny, he will have identified what’s probably the single most cost-effective education policy intervention — one that should have particularly large benefits for low-income children.

And while it’s too hasty to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one study, it would be incredibly cheap to have a few cities experiment with installing air filters in some of their schools to get more data and draw clearer conclusions about exactly how much of a difference this makes.

The Aliso Canyon gas leak, explained

Back on October 23, 2015, employees of the Southern California Gas Company discovered a massive leak in the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility near Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Significant for the larger purposes of the study, the Porter Ranch area is known for having “some of the cleanest air in the Valley year-round.”

The gas leak was a huge catastrophe from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions, but also naturally raised concerns in the local community about the immediate impact on public health.

Facing political pressure from concerned parents and teachers, Gilraine writes, “the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the owner of the gas well, the Southern California Gas Company, placed air filters in every classroom, office and common area in all schools within five miles of the gas leak at the end of January 2016.”

Strikingly, however, air testing conducted around the time of the installation of the filters shows that the schools didn’t actually have abnormally high levels of the kinds of pollution that are normally associated with natural gas. Methane is lighter than air, and by the time the filters were installed — nearly three months after the leak — the extra pollution caused was all the way up in the sky and not affecting school buildings.

Consequently, the installation of the filters served not to remove extra contamination caused by the leak, but simply to clean up the normal amount of background indoor air pollution present in the Valley. That lets Gilraine estimate the difference in student performance for schools just inside the boundary compared to those just outside.

He finds that math scores went up by 0.20 standard deviations and English scores by 0.18 standard deviations, and the results hold up even when you control for “detailed student demographics, including residential ZIP Code fixed effects that help control for a student’s exposure to pollution at home.”

For context, this is comparable in scale to some of the most optimistic studies on the potential benefits of smaller class sizes, with Alan Krueger finding that cutting class size by a third leads to a 0.22 standard deviation improvement in academic performance. Other studies find smaller or even negative effects (because adding teachers means bringing in less experienced or less effective ones), but even accepting the positive findings, it costs much more than $700 per classroom to achieve class size reductions of that scale.

This is a big, but not implausible, number

The effect Gilraine finds is strikingly large given that it’s a seemingly trivial intervention.

But Sefi Roth of the London School of Economics studied university students’ test performance relative to air pollution levels on the day of the test aloneHe found that taking a test in a filtered rather than unfiltered room would raise test scores by 0.09 standard deviations. That’s about half the impact Gilraine found, just based on day-of-test air quality. In Gilraine’s natural experiment, students benefited from cleaner air for about four months. Given that context, it’s not incredibly surprising that you could see an impact that’s about twice as large.

What’s natural to ask — though unknowable from the study before us — is how much more change we could see if students benefited from an entire school year of clean air. Or perhaps an entire school career, from pre-K through high school graduation, of clean air.

One striking thing about this is the government has long been aware that indoor air pollution is a potential problem. But according to currently prevailing Indoor Air Quality standards, there was nothing wrong with the air in the schools. Filters were installed because of an essentially unwarranted panic about natural gas.

And while Los Angeles is a fairly high-pollution part of the country, outdoor particulate levels are higher in many areas — including New York, Chicago, and Houston — than they were in the impacted neighborhood. In other words, there’s no reason to think the impacted schools were unusually deficient in their air quality. They just happen to be the ones that installed filters.

A cheap, scalable initiative

For a sense of scale, Mathematica Policy Research’s best evidence on the effectiveness of the highly touted KIPP charter school network finds that after three years at KIPP there is significant improvement on three out of four test metrics — up 0.25 standard deviations on one English test, 0.22 standard deviations on another, and 0.28 standard deviations on one of two math tests.

Those are big gains, and they help explain why there is so much enthusiasm about KIPP in some quarters, even as charter schools remain politically controversial and charters in general seem to produce roughly average results.

This is bigger than the impact of letting kids benefit from clean air for four months. But installing the full suite of air filters costs about $1,000 per classroom, and continuing to operate them beyond the first year is cheaper than that. And best of all, unlike totally reworking school operations, it could be scaled up very quickly.

It would be almost trivially easy to get a variety of school districts all around the country to randomly select schools for the installation of air filters. That would rapidly generate a ton of additional data, and if the results continued to be promising, the initiative could be made universal very quickly.

The benefits, on their face, would be extremely large at a relatively low cost. And since air pollution is generally worse in lower-income communities, you would not only raise test scores nationally, but make progress on the big socioeconomic gaps in student achievement that have proven very difficult to remedy. SOURCE

California eyes selling its own brand of generic prescription drugs to battle high costs

Medicines on a shelf in a pharmacy

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to announce a plan for the state to sell its own brand of generic prescription drugs. (Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press)

California would become the first state to sell its own brand of generic prescription drugs in an effort to drive down rising healthcare costs under a proposal Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to unveil in his new state budget Friday.

A broad overview of the ambitious but still conceptual plan provided by Newsom’s office says the state could contract with one or more generic drugmakers to manufacture certain prescriptions under the state’s own label. Those drugs would be available to all Californians for purchase, presumably at a lower cost. The governor’s office said the proposal would increase competition in the generic drug market, which in turn would lower prices for everyone.

The proposal drew both praise and skepticism Thursday as healthcare experts said they were eager to see details on how the state would rein in drug prices that have become increasingly out of reach for many in the state.

“It’s an interesting idea without there being any specifics,” said Craig Garthwaite, director of the healthcare program at Northwestern University‘s Kellogg School of Management. “The question is: What is the goal? Is it to decrease aggregate spending on drugs or fix market failures?”

Whether prescription drugmakers would follow California’s lead as Newsom’s administration has suggested is far from certain. And other key details, including what prescriptions would be manufactured and the timeline for the venture, were not provided.

“A trip to the doctor’s office, pharmacy or hospital shouldn’t cost a month’s pay,” Newsom said in a statement. “The cost of healthcare is just too damn high, and California is fighting back.”

Combating high prescription drug prices has been a priority for Newsom since he took office a year ago, tapping into an area of great concern to the public. Six out of 10 Americans report taking at least one prescription drug, while nearly 80% say the price of those medicines is unreasonable, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report last year. The issue has also become a priority for candidates courting supporters, with 70% of registered voters saying they favor candidates who support lowering drug costs, a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found.

“Every state has been frustrated with high drug prices,” said Trish Riley, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy. “They want to balance their budgets and these drug price spikes make it difficult. This could have tremendous impact.”

No other state has attempted to cut out the supply chain that leads to drug markups, Riley said, but there is another, smaller-scale model California can turn to.

More than 1,000 hospitals in 46 states are a part of a nonprofit company called Civica Rx, which formed in 2018 to manufacture generic injectable drugs used in hospitals to lower costs and create a stable supply of the medicines. The nonprofit delivered its first generic drug to hospitals in the fall, an antibiotic that had been in short supply.

“It’s an example of what aggressive purchasing can accomplish,” Riley said.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts proposed a bill in 2018 to establish an Office of Drug Manufacturing, which would have allowed the federal government to make prescription drugs or contract with drug companies to produce them in order to lower costs for patients and reduce shortages. The bill did not advance, although Warren continues to promote the concept in her campaign.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s lobbying arm, said it is “waiting to receive additional details from the governor on his proposals.”

But others have expressed skepticism at the state’s potential move into the drug market.

“Frankly, I think it’s a ludicrous proposal that demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of generic drug economics,” said Adam Fein, chief executive of the Drug Channels Institute, a market research and consulting firm. “It’s like saying you want to go to Post [Consumer Brands] for your Fruity Pebbles and open a supermarket to buy them. It doesn’t make sense.”

Health experts said California’s plan has the potential to assist consumers if done correctly but cautioned that the state should not expect it to yield significant savings. Those experts said the state could identify drugs that have not generated sufficient competition among generic drug manufacturers and try to compete, but that would mean producing medicines that are in less demand.

It is unlikely that would lead to large savings for the state, but it could drive down prices on some less commonly used drugs for a smaller number of Californians, said USC health economist Geoffrey Joyce.

“This is not a bad move,” Joyce said. “But I wouldn’t oversell it. It will make a modest dent in overall drug spending and drug pricing in California. You are benefiting a modest group of patients, but you are benefiting them in a significant way.”

Garthwaite said the plan has potential to drive down prices, but it also has risks.

“Just because California makes these drugs, doesn’t mean they will make them at a lower cost,” he said. “They would have to target places where the margin is high. I would be worried about them having the discipline to know which markets to enter.”

In October, the state released its first report detailing wholesale drug price increases using data from a pricing transparency law passed in 2017. That report showed 114 generic drugs with reportable price hikes had the largest median price increase from 2017 through the beginning of 2019, rising 37.6%, according to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. That increase was based on the list prices of the drugs before discounts and rebates. Overall, the median list price for all drugs rose 25.8% over the three-year period, according to the report.

But the data include only cases in which generic drugs were subject to price increases and do not account for retail prices that consumers pay, which have been declining, said Allen Goldberg, a spokesman for the Assn. for Accessible Medicines, a trade group for generic drug manufacturers.

“If we’re going to craft policy, let’s understand the data,” Goldberg said.

Last year, Newsom signed executive orders to consolidate the state’s prescription drug purchases into a government-run program, a plan that is still in its early phases. Under the current system, Medi-Cal and state agencies separately negotiate prescription drug prices, but Newsom wants to combine the efforts to give the state more purchasing power.

The executive orders last year called for the state-run collective to be open to small businesses, California residents and local governments, with a handful of counties already pledging to join, including Los Angeles.

On Friday, Newsom is expected to announce plans to expand on the state’s bulk buying plan and seek additional partnerships. He plans to propose a drug pricing schedule for California, a system in which drug manufacturers would bid to sell their prescription drugs at set uniform prices in the state. Newsom’s plan calls for drug prices to be equal to or lower than those of any other state, national or global purchaser in order to sell the products in California.

No other specifics for the plan were made available. Newsom has said he would like to open the state’s future bulk buying program to all entities in California that negotiate with drug manufacturers, including Medi-Cal and the private insurance market. MORE

 

 

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