Monday, Oct 16, 2017
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Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

Ex-Michigan lawyer feels consumer product safety slipping away

DETROIT — Marietta “Marti” Robinson doesn’t rattle easily. She was known for years both in Michigan and beyond as one of the state’s top trial lawyers. She worked for the United Nations’ international peacekeeping commission in Liberia.

Highly regarded as fair and responsible, she was charged by Washington with helping to distribute more than $2.4 billion in settlements to women harmed by the Dalkon Shield.

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Beyond that, she was the first woman to be president of the International Society of Barristers and has had other national and international appointments.

But now, at age 65, she is terribly worried. For the last four years, she’s been one of five members of one of the lesser-known but most important commissions in government.

“The Consumer Product Safety Commission is one of the jewels of what makes this country work,” she told me over breakfast recently. “We protect our consumers, particularly our children, from dangerous products better than any other country on Earth. Other countries look to our example for what we do with respect to dangerous products.”

But now, she fears, the age of consumer protection in America is about to end — with devastating consequences.

Her term expires later this month, and she will be replaced by a Republican, since that party holds the White House. That will give the GOP a 3-2 majority on the commission, which defines itself as “being charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death associated with … thousands of types of consumer products.”

Normally, she wouldn’t object; she understands politics.

“I fully appreciate that R’s and D’s have different views generally of regulations,” she said. She also knows that some regulations may need to be loosened or done away with entirely.

But what’s going on now, mostly away from the press, which has concentrated on the bombast from the White House, is “the wholesale dismantling of the agencies that have served critically important functions. What’s happened is so far outside the mainstream of any administration we have seen.”

These policies, she believes, could “undo our country as we know it,” and she’s trying to do whatever she can to attract attention to consumer product safety matters.

When asked to name an example, she instantly brought up “nonpolymeric additive organohalogen flame retardants,” or OFRs, which are in many children’s products.

“Some of the most preeminent toxicologists in the country urged us to ban these OFRs, because of those on which we have data, all are toxic with particularly devastating effects on fetuses, babies, and small children.”

Nevertheless, the most she could persuade her fellow commissioners to do was set up a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel of scientists to advise the commissioners.

The two Republicans on the panel, including acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle, opposed even that, and Ms. Robinson fears that once she has been replaced, there will be no further attempts to regulate, much less ban, OFRs.

President Trump has nominated Ms. Buerkle as permanent chair, and nominated Dana Baiocco, a partner in the well-known Jones Day law firm, to replace Ms. Robinson.

Ms. Robinson, a Democrat, said she never had any illusion that she might be reappointed, but said that if these nominations are confirmed by the Senate, “consumers don’t have any likelihood of having safe products, including with respect to the chemicals in children’s products.”

Republicans say those fears are overblown.

Ms. Robinson insisted that she doesn’t dislike Ms. Buerkle — “she is delightful personally,” she said.

“However, her positions as a commissioner have been so extremely pro-industry and anti-consumer as to be out of line with all the other commissioners, including frequently her fellow Republicans. In four years, she has never taken a single position on anything at the agency that was not 100 percent in alignment with what the affected industry wished.”

Ms. Robinson feels so strongly about this that she has been lobbying senators against voting to confirm Ms. Buerkle as chair. That is likely a futile exercise.

She acknowledged that maybe she “Can’t stop the train, but you can’t just let the passengers enjoy the scenery,” she said.

Regardless of whether she succeeds or fails, the outgoing commissioner has another mission in mind: to raise awareness that there’s more to government than our elected leaders.

“Agencies and other parts of the executive branch that do not live in the White House are where the real action is.”

Though President Trump’s major legislative initiatives have largely failed or stalled, “there’s been an early strong push to deregulate across the federal government.”

That included a little-noticed executive order requiring agencies to repeal two regulations for every one they adopt.

“With all the chaos in Congress and the White House, too many people have been ignoring the level at which our country’s fabric is really being undone,” Ms. Robinson said.

She intends to, at least, make some noise about that.

Jack Lessenberry, the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: omblade@aol.com.

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