Regs in review: genetically modified crops, captive bears, and nuclear waste

Photo of a bear peering out of a cage
Photo credit: Badmanproduction via

Welcome to Sunlight’s new recurring report on regulatory highlights from the feds. We dive into the depths of data liberated by  our Docket Wrench and Scout tools to demonstrate what treasures await there. This week proposals getting the most attention from people and organizations writing comments include one to allow deregulation of soybeans and corn genetically modified to defy pests, another to protect bears in captivity, and another to set standards for nuclear waste storage.

Most comments posted

Deregulating genetically modified soybeans and corn: More than 960 comments were posted last week following an announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it was recommending the deregulation of three herbicide resistant corn and soybean plants manufactured by Dow AgroSciences. The department is collecting public comment on its draft environmental impact statement that contains the recommendation about the company’s Enlist ™ ; comments are due on February 24. Dow AgroSciences is happy, claiming these plants are needed by farmers in the south whose plants have become herbicide resistant. Environmental groups such as Beyond Pesticides condemned the proposal, arguing that engineered versions would create new weed resistant strains and could pose a cancer risk. Most of the comments appear to be critical of the proposal but do not necessarily use similar language. But there is evidence that various groups are mustering support of their grassroots. One cluster of about 17 negative comment letters appear inspired by this action alert by the Food Revolution Network. Not all the comments are negative, however. For example, this cluster of 75 letters matches the language in this letter hand signed by dozens of farmers. And last July, soon after the agriculture department announced it was embarking on the environmental assessment, a number of  trade groups and the company itself wrote in support of deregulation, including the Biotechnology Industry Association, the National Corn Growers Association, and the American Soybean Association.

Protecting bears in captivity: Following a petition by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the government is asking for public comment on a proposal to create guidelines for humane treatment of bears in captivity. The one exception is polar bears–apparently they are already subject to certain standards. Last week, the agency posted some 320 comments on the proposal and more than 4,300 have been logged since the Animal Health and Inspection Service first published the proposal in November. PETA itself has inspired the largest discernible cluster of more than 1,200 comments with this action alert. Another 100 share similar language to this alert by the group Born Free USA. Comments are due January 27.

Nuclear waste: Although the comment period ended in December, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission logged 276 comments last week on a proposal on how it assesses risk from storage of spent nuclear fuel. Organizations commenting include environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which urge strong standards, along with utilities such as Duke Energy and Xcel Energy, arguing for greater flexibility. Overall, the agency reports receiving more than 1,000 comments, most who are concerned about environmental hazards from nuclear waste. This cluster of letters, for example, contains language from this alert sent out by an Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club.

Several Sunlight wrote about last week appeared again on the list of regulatory initiatives collecting the most comments. These include proposals to regulate greenhouse gases, Medicare physician fee schedules, and renewable fuel standards.

More time to comment

A search on Scout shows that the feds are extending the comment period for a number of regulations of high public interest.

  • A U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) proposal to set standards for energy efficient light bulbs. New due date: Feb. 7. So far the agency posts only two comments. However, the issue is somewhat moot since Republicans in Congress just succeeded in including a provision preventing DOE from implementing new standards for light bulbs in the omnibus spending bill recently signed by President Barack Obama.
  • A proposal to update the document known as the General Accountability Office’s “green book,” which sets standards for how federal agencies manage resources and finances. New due date: Feb. 18. The agency reports a whopping zero comments to date.

Now final

Among the rules that became final last week were:

  •  A rule setting out how waivers may be applied to states for Medicaid-funded projects to help the elderly and disabled.
  • A correction to a rule published in 2012 governing penalties for mistreatment of horses.
  • Extension of requirement on the books requiring truck drivers to keep records of their medical certificates with them when they drive.