Congress Investigates Portable Generator Manufacturers Following Carbon Monoxide Deaths

A congressional committee is investigating whether portable generator manufacturers have done enough to protect the public from deadly levels of carbon monoxide emitted by their products.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., who leads the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent letters to top executives at four major generator companies on Tuesday requesting copies of records documenting why they have not implemented potentially lifesaving safety upgrades in many generator models for sale. Maloney also asked for messages sent or received by officials at the companies — Generac Power SystemsDuroMax Power EquipmentFirman Power Equipment and Champion Power Equipment — related to any injuries or deaths connected to their products.

The committee investigation comes more than two decades after U.S. regulators identified the deadly risks posed by portable generators and six months after an investigation by NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found that federal efforts to make portable generators safer have been stymied by a statutory process that empowers manufacturers to regulate themselves. That system has resulted in limited safety upgrades and continued deaths. Maloney repeatedly cited the news outlets’ findings in her letters to company executives.

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Settlement Over Private Border Wall Won’t Stop Flooding or Erosion of Rio Grande Shoreline, Experts Say

The 2020 storm Hurricane Hanna left waist-deep cracks on the banks of the Rio Grande along parts of a private border fence, which threatened the structural integrity of the project, experts said. Credit:James Hord for The Texas Tribune

Federal prosecutors reached a settlement agreement this week with the construction company that built a troubled private border fence along the Rio Grande in South Texas.

The settlement caps off two and a half years of legal wrangling after the federal government sued Fisher Industries and its subsidiaries, alleging that the 18-foot-tall and 3-mile-long fence led to erosion so significant that it threatened to shift the border and could cause the structure to collapse into the river, impacting a major dam.

Under the agreement, the company must conduct quarterly inspections, maintain an existing gate that allows for the release of floodwaters and keep a $3 million bond, a type of insurance, for 15 years, or until the property is transferred to the government, to cover any expenses in case the structure fails.

Experts told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune that the settlement provides insufficient protection to the Rio Grande’s shoreline and leaves too much discretion to the builder when it comes to maintaining and inspecting the bollard fence.

“They’re putting Band-Aids on top of Band-Aids to fix the initial problem that they caused,” said Adriana E. Martinez, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor who studies river systems. She said the settlement does not require enough from the company to prevent additional flooding or damage from the fence.

The settlement lets Fisher Industries select the places along the fence to inspect for damage, decide what triggers some repairs and reject any proposed changes to the maintenance plan suggested by the government. It also allows the company to police itself instead of requiring a third-party inspector, said Amy Patrick, a Houston forensic structural and civil engineer and court-recognized expert on wall construction.

“It appears as though they are trusting the contractor far more than I have seen other contractors trusted,” she said.

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They Built the Wall. Problems Remain After Founder’s Guilty Plea.

Brian Kolfage faces more than five years in prison after pleading guilty to federal fraud charges last month. Credit:Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP

Brian Kolfage arrived in Texas three years ago pledging to help fulfill President Donald Trump’s promise of a “big, beautiful” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. After pleading guilty to federal fraud charges last month, Kolfage leaves behind two small stretches of fencing that are mired in legal, environmental and permitting fights.

Kolfage, a 40-year-old Air Force veteran, faces more than five years in prison after pleading guilty to defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the wall effort. Despite the resolution of the criminal case, Kolfage and his We Build the Wall group still face a defamation suit brought by the National Butterfly Center, a nonprofit nature preserve in the Rio Grande Valley that he accused of promoting sex and human trafficking without evidence. In addition, the federal government has filed suit regarding one of his wall projects, alleging it was built in potential violation of an international treaty between the U.S. and Mexico.

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Reality Check: Seven Times Texas Leaders Misled the Public About Operation Lone Star

Photo Illustration by John Whitlock for ProPublica/Texas Tribune/The Marshall Project. Source images: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune; Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vondehaar for The Texas Tribune

Earlier this month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ratcheted up pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration by expanding the state’s sweeping border crackdown, announcing that he would bus immigrants to Washington, D.C., after they were apprehended for illegally crossing the border, as well as search commercial trucks entering Texas from Mexico.

During an April 6 press conference launching the additional efforts, Abbott did not explain that the busing is voluntary for immigrants. Texas cities and counties where migrants seeking to stay in the country are dropped off by the federal government must also request such a transport out of state before it occurs.

Then, about a week after his directive for vehicle safety inspections drew criticism for hampering border commerce, Abbott rescinded it, saying he’d reached agreements with four Mexican governors to strengthen security south of the border. The agreements mostly included measures already in place, but the governor claimed on social media last week that they demonstrated Texas had accomplished more to secure the border in two days than Biden had done during his time in office.

The measures are the latest examples of how Abbott and other state officials have used incomplete and sometimes misleading statements when promoting the purpose and effectiveness of Operation Lone Star.

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Examining Nearly Two Decades of Taxpayer-Funded Border Operations

hoto illustration by John Whitlock for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune/The Marshall Project. Source images: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune; Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune; Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune; Verónica G. Cárdenas for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune

In October 2005, Texas Gov. Rick Perry traveled to the border city of Laredo and announced Operation Linebacker, a new initiative that he said would protect the state’s residents from terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.

Without pointing to evidence, Perry said such terrorist groups, along with drug cartels and gangs, were attempting to exploit the U.S.-Mexico border. A press release from the governor’s office said Perry warned that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, criminal organizations could “import terror, illegal narcotics and weapons of mass destruction.”

Perry said Texas would step in to fill the gaps left by the federal government, increasing state law enforcement presence along the border and providing new investigative tools. He stopped short of directly attacking President George W. Bush or the Republican-led Congress. “The state of Texas cannot wait for the federal government to implement needed border security measures,” Perry said, explaining that the state would use $10 million in funding that included federal grants for the operation. Two months later, the governor highlighted his border security efforts while announcing his reelection campaign.

Over the next 17 years, Perry and his successor, Gov. Greg Abbott, persuaded the Texas Legislature to spend billions of dollars on border security measures that included at least nine operations and several smaller initiatives. Each time, the governors promised that the state would do what the federal government had failed to: secure the border.

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