2010 PFIG Recipient Komal Karnik

Career Administrator

Komal Karnik
College of Arts and Sciences
Biology and Psychology Major
2011 Graduation Year

Internship: US Public Interest Research Group

Notes on the first week

I breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped off the elevator and through the glass door at the Washington D.C. office of U.S. Public Interest Research Group. U.S. PIRG is the federation of state chapters and advocates on behalf of the public interest on a variety of issues, including healthcare, credit reform, and my area of toxics and public health. I worked at PIRG last summer as the public health legislative intern on chemical security legislation and the toxics campaign, and will be doing similar work this year on securing chemical facilities and banning the dangerous substance Bisphenol-A found in can linings and reusable plastics. I had been nervously anticipating the start of my second summer at the office, as I was unsure how this summer’s work would stack up against last year’s, and whether I would be able to jump headlong into the fray over a piece of legislation that has been in the works for more than ten years. The minute I walked back into the office, though, and met with a warm hug from my mentor Liz Hitchcock (public health advocate for U.S. PIRG), it felt as though I had not been away for those ten months.

True, we would be working on the Senate side now, since H.R. 2868, the Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Act, had passed the House of Representatives last November, but it is familiar territory. After a grueling month of studying for the LSATs, coming back to work with PIRG on the same piece of legislation was a comfortable yet exciting prospect. One of the benefits of being a returning member of the team is that I am able to skip over the painful orientation process and thus I only have to refresh my memory on the issues we will be advocating on Capitol Hill. Most of these were issues that we had endorsed last year; if there is one thing I have learned from my months on the Hill, it is how deliberately the legislative process moves.

The first day back, I was immediately assigned a project that will span the next few weeks. I will be revamping a chemical facility security report released in 2004 related to the legislation we are trying to move through the Senate. Once we have it ready (probably by mid-July), I will post the link in my next journal to get your feedback! I am definitely looking forward to helping write the report, though the research is a bit tedious. The first week has therefore been a plunge into the ocean of literature and company financial statements for this report. I am learning an incredible amount about a field in which I have never ventured, namely commerce, business, and insurance. I also have to freshen up on the changes in the legislation passed and a new strategy for tackling the Senate. Luckily, my long hours at the computer have been punctuated by meetings in the Senate buildings with the legal aides of certain senators as my mentor lobbies. Politicians are the celebrities of D.C. and I always get excited when I see someone I read about in newspapers. My second day back, I was invited to accompany the other interns in my office to a Consumers Union luncheon where Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was slated to speak, along with other members of Congress. One day this week I popped in at a hearing about the BP oil leak and saw Senator John McCain.

I am extremely grateful for this learning opportunity and one-of-a-kind experience that I am gaining at U.S. PIRG, with the help of the Parents Committee. I look forward to sharing my work and shedding some light on my experience with the legislative process at the federal level as I help advocate on behalf of the public interest for chemical security and toxics issues.

Midway

July is a busy (and hot!) month in Washington, D.C. While Congress goes out of session for a week or so during July 4th celebrations, everyone else on the Hill is ratcheting up to race against an increasingly tight legislative schedule. I found this to be the case again this year, as I worked day after day, digging for research that would be useful for the report, to be released later this month, on chemical facilities that put millions of people in danger. Much of my research involved delving into Securities and Exchange Commission filings of public companies that own these facilities. As a Biology and Psychology major, this world of finance was unfamiliar territory for me, but I found that I enjoyed learning about shareholder reports and liability analysis. I had hoped that by the time I wrote this second entry, I would be able to share the report we are working on, but it looks like that will have to be included next month. In addition to research into these dangerous companies, I compiled data on the vulnerability zones of each chemical facility or refinery i.e. how many people would be injured or killed in the event of a disaster or terrorist attack, based on the number of people living around the facility and the amount/type of chemicals stored or produced there. My research also entailed investigating accidents that have already occurred at these facilities, including many toxic gas releases that could have turned into major catastrophes.

I am collaborating with another intern at U.S. PIRG, who is examining the money that is poured into lobbying by the major chemical companies who oppose legislation to make chemical facilities safer. In the past month, I have come to appreciate how much we, as citizens, take the government for granted. In school we learn about the three branches of government, the history of the political parties, and significant laws or amendments, but we do not understand that the law controls every aspect of our lives. Laws regulate the cleanliness of our food, water, and air we breathe, the roads we travel on, and the chemicals in everyday objects. These are things I used to take for granted until I understood the long process that creates these regulations. This has been a challenging month in the fight over the legislation I have been working on, and our coalition has walked out of many meetings in silence after a congressional aide told us there was no way this bill would pass this year. However, I know now that every little bit helps, including informing the public of dangers in the community they may not even know exist. So I threw myself into researching for this report, and I can’t wait for the feedback. I look forward to posting the report next time!

In the mean time, I am organizing and "dropping" petition signatures to senators from their constituents who want a strong chemical facility security bill. In addition to chemical facility security legislation, I am also involved in the food safety campaign and FDA reform bill, though less directly involved than in the chemical security campaign. We are trying to get a BPA ban attached to the bill. Overall, it has been a rewarding, discouraging, challenging, and exciting month of working in public service and I am anticipating more challenges and more excitement in the month to come as we ramp up our efforts before the August recess.

Final Reflections

Today is my last day working for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and I have to finally face the fact that I will not be returning to this wonderful office where I have learned so much in the past two summers. The last couple months have been a whirlwind, with meetings, hearings, mark-ups, and general lobbying chaos as Congress goes out for August recess, and as my internship winds down. The project I have been working on the entire summer, entitled "Chemical Insecurity: America's most dangerous companies and the multimillion dollar campaign against common sense solutions" was finally released last Thursday! Here is the link to the report released on the U.S. PIRG website: http://cdn.publicinterestnetwork.org/assets/c15a63cc6c1fef528d26a0bf43dd...

It was a pretty exciting moment, especially as it is the largest tangible representation of the work I have been doing for two summers. I spent the first month or so working on the research underlying this report, in collaboration with another intern here at PIRG. My part of the report consists of the data regarding the 'vulnerability zones' around these chemical facilities, the chemicals they use, and the information regarding accidents and the potential terrorism threat at these facilities. I cannot believe that without this internship, I would likely not be aware of this issue, which has somehow been put on the back burner in recent times by global warming, healthcare, and the BP oil spill. The report was especially timely after a disappointing mark-up of the House-passed bill (H.R. 2868), which we supported, but that was stripped of all that we valued in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) two weeks ago. We supported the House bill and Senator Lautenberg's (D-NJ) corresponding Senate bill, which was split into two and sent to different committees for jurisdiction. The Environment and Public Works Committee had jurisdiction over the water bill, while HSGAC was referred the chemical title. I had hoped to see this legislation come to the Senate floor before I left this internship, but I have learned that patience is a virtue worth having on Capitol Hill. We still hope for some action on the floor in September, but it will become increasingly difficult as mid-term elections approach.

After working on the report through mid-July and assisting with the writing/editing of the report through August, I began work on a new project that my mentor (Liz Hitchcock, Public Health Advocate) is involved with- food safety. I went through the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recall press releases and databased relevant information for a report to be released later in September. I was shocked to find out that the FDA does not have mandatory recall authority over foods that may be contaminated with Salmonella orListeria monocytogenes, in spite of possibly fatal illnesses that consumers may be in danger of. Instead, the companies issue a 'voluntary recall' of their own accord or at the suggestion of the FDA after routine inspections. Some of the recalls involved sickening findings, such as rodent infestations near food in warehouses, which resulted in turning me off from my lunch a few times. There is currently an FDA reform bill in the works, and I hope that it will come through, because I'd rather the food be taken off the shelf before it gets to the consumers, rather than after.

The release of the report was a satisfying end to my internship, in spite of obstacles in the legislative arena. Not only have I gained specialized knowledge into the issue of chemical security and food safety, I have really been given the opportunity to gain insight into how our government works, something which I think every citizen needs to be truly informed on the issues. It is no longer easy to read the newspaper and blast legislators for failing to do something when you understand the influences and political pressures. This is not to say that they are justified in doing nothing, just that it is understandable, given the gridlock of opinions in every direction. During the course of my internship, I have gained the invaluable knowledge of how to be a better citizen, how to get involved with what is going on in the country, and how to raise my voice for issues I am passionate about. The experience has opened my eyes to my own interests in public health, epidemiology, and public policy. As a Biology and Psychology major applying to law school, this internship has confirmed my belief that there is a connection between science, health, and law, and that I want to be at the crossroads.

I want to thank the Parents Fund for their generous grant that enabled me to accept the internship that has given me the incredible opportunities and experiences of lobbying on behalf of the public interest. Thank you again!