We Don’t Need Regulations? Oh Really?

One of the constant statements you’ll hear from conservatives is how “regulations are stifling business and the economy.”   Obviously, if only we could do away with them, it would lead to a major economic boom!  It’s a line that draws sympathetic responses, because most of us have our own experiences with various regulations.  I know I do in my work.  A good part of my job is filling out various reporting forms required by various state and federal agencies.  I’m also required to follow quite a number of regulations, and I receive annual – or more – inspections from them, to insure that I’m doing it.

I’m not a major manufacturer or facility, I don’t have a big staff, and I don’t have a “lot of stuff.”  My hazardous materials are paints, lubricants, cleansers, gas and oil.  Things that you probably have around your place, without any issues. Despite that, I have to have proper storage facilities, safety data sheets for everything, and a set of emergency plans.  I have an “alphabet soup” of regulatory agencies which have various requirements, everything from the federal level down to the local ones.  Is it a pain in the ass?  Yes, it is.   But while I may gripe and moan about various forms, complain about a specific set of requirements, and think that a given regulation is unnecessary, I do recognize that there’s a need for having regulations – and people to enforce them.

I know that someone from the state’s health department, environmental protection agency, occupational safety agency, and the fire marshals will all show up on my doorstep at least once a year.  I know that every now and then, the comptroller’s office will have auditors appear unannounced and go through everything.   What I know is not only are there regulations, there are people who enforce them and they are going to show up and do their job.  That’s because I live in a state that conservatives like to point to as “overtaxed and over regulated.”

So what happens when the conservatives get their way?  Well, this:

Just a small fertilizer mixing plant that didn’t bother reporting what it had, and no one paid attention:

In its RMP filings, West Fertilizer reported on its storage of anhydrous ammonia and said that it did not expect a fire or explosion to affect the facility, even in a worst-case scenario. And it had not installed safeguards such as blast walls around the plant.

A separate EPA program, known as Tier II, requires reporting of ammonium nitrate and other hazardous chemicals stored above certain quantities. Tier II reports are submitted to local fire departments and emergency planning and response groups to help them plan for and respond to chemical disasters. In Texas, the reports are collected by the Department of State Health Services. Over the last seven years, according to reports West Fertilizer filed, 2012 was the only time the company stored ammonium nitrate at the facility.

It doesn’t appear that Texas really bothered to check up on it.  Equally apparent is that the zoning for the community wasn’t taking any of this into account either.  There were two schools,  a nursing home, and houses near the plant.   There were other gaps in the reporting process, including its failure to report that it had that much ammonium nitrate to the Department of Homeland Security.

In the reporting of this story, there’s been a lot of discussion over the different reporting requirements, the level of regulations, multi-agency reporting, and lack of communication between all of them.  Which are problems, and do need to be addressed.  But what is also clear is that the conservatives have done a very good job of “starving the beast,” and the result is that there are too few regulatory personnel to be able to enforce the existing rules.

Bob Johnson, a recently retired industrial chemist who spent 35 years working for ICI and its subsidiaries, said he was not surprised by the lack of inspections. “In my experience, OSHA is overloaded and undermanned. They cannot cope, they cannot possibly do what they are supposed to do – they do not have the boys on the ground,” he said.

The OSHA covers 7 million worksites in the US but has just 2,000 inspectors nationwide. Under its current funding, it can only conduct 40,000 inspections every year.

It’s been an ongoing effort by conservatives:

Under-staffing at OSHA, since the mid , has meant ”hollow” threats of inspection and less accountability for employers, diminished protections for workers, and lax to nonexistent enforcement. According to the 2010 Center for Progressive Reform report, OSHA has operated on a “shoestring” budget for years. The agency’s budget climbed steadily in the 1970s, but a backlash from big business and the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush put an end to that.

Under Reagan and GHW Bush OSHA’s budget was first slashed, and then held it even with inflation. Bill Clinton boosted the agencies budget somewhat, but OSHA’s publication of ergonomic standards incited another business backlash. The whittling away at OSHA’s budget picked up pace again under George W. Bush. including cuts to the agencies enforcement budget and eliminating enforcement jobs. With Republicans enjoying virtual one-party rule in Washington, OSHA’s budget was cut every year from 2001 to 2008, and the agency adopted a “laissez-faire” attitude, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The Washington Post reported that under Bush OSHA became “mired in inaction.”

It’s not just OSHA.  It’s every regulatory agency.  The FDA, EPA, Mine Safety, Minerals Management, pipeline safety, and so on at the federal level.  States have done the same, particularly where Republicans hold control.    After all, the companies can be trusted to ensure they’re doing things right, and it’ll create jobs!

Lots of jobs were created right there, cleaning up the mess.    That’s the problem with conservative’s insistence that we don’t need regulations.  There’s always plenty of evidence as to why we do, and while they get misty-eyed about the past, they forget that the past is the reason for many of those regulations.  I don’t worry at the present time about a river catching on fire, which is something that used to happen.

With the need, we also need to ensure that the regulations are enforced.   That means having the funding and the people to do it, and that’s where conservatives have been skimping as much as they can.  The problem with that?  Far too often these days, it means that the rest of us have to step in and pick up the tab to fix what went wrong, because they were busily “saving money” and creating a “business friendly environment.”

There are many legitimate criticisms that can be made about the regulatory environment.  Yes, there are those which are unnecessary.  There are those that need revision.  There is a need to streamline or simplify reporting requirements.  There are too many “fingers in the pie,” when it comes to who is responsible for what.  There definitely is a need for better communications and coordination between responsible agencies.  All of those things can be, and should be criticized and changed as needed.  But it does not mean that regulations are “unnecessary!”

That’s where the conservative mantra has failed.  We do need regulations, we need the people to enforce them.  Yes, I live in a “less friendly” state, but you know what?  We generally enforce the regulations, and we’re getting tired of bailing out those states who seem to think that they didn’t have to.


Filed under Business, Politics

15 responses to “We Don’t Need Regulations? Oh Really?

  1. ErikaF

    What conservatives look at when they see regulations is “I don’t get to do what I wanna, and I don’t wanna do that!” What I see when I see regulation is that regulations enforce standards and accountability. Regulations ensure that everyone affected is on a common ground (if one company is must control their emissions, all companies must so that (ideally) no one benefits wrongly over the other). Regulations also promote accountability in a business and social culture that seeks to put the responsibility for an event on someone or something. If there were over 270 tons of fertilizer being stored improperly against regulations, then the owners/managers/enablers will be responsible for what happens.

    Don’t the conservatives preach personal responsibility? In that case, they should see regulations as enforcing responsibility. Or I guess they don’t like the idea of someone else enforcing responsibility on them. In which case they really are 4 year olds who really should be taken behind the woodshed.

    • They tend to look at regulations as a burden and a cost center, not as a “leveling the playing field.” What they end up doing is “socializing the cost,” where they have everyone else picking up the cost of their neglect.

      The other thing they’re doing is “playing the ref’s” by political maneuvers and also reducing the ability to actually check. Again, hoping to get away with it and pass the cost onto someone else.

      • ErikaF

        And the fantasy world aspect (as you touched on a few weeks ago). Conservatives believe that nothing will go wrong and that everyone will behave properly to benefit them. Those that don’t are either seen as mavericks (if they get away with it) or not-us (if they don’t). The viewpoint: Of course no one would store dangerous chemicals improperly – the free market will take care of that really fast, and everyone sees that, so it’s not an issue. Of course the damage to people and property won’t happen, since the free market will take care of the stupid people, right?

        Regulations mean that someone, somewhere has done something stupid (like storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer improperly) and we’re trying to make sure that someone else isn’t that stupid (because, as we’ve seen, there always are). Ironically, it’s the dreamy-eyed liberals who cynically see how people behave, and it’s the “reality based” conservatives who really want that fantasy world.

  2. “But while I may gripe and moan about various forms, complain about a specific set of requirements, and think that a given regulation is unnecessary, I do recognize that there’s a need for having regulations – and people to enforce them.”

    Yes, even tree-hugging liberals want businesses to succeed but not at the expense of health factors that take lives or add to personal budgets with higher health care costs.

  3. Great piece on this issue Norbrook. Sent it to my FB page.

  4. nathkatun7

    Norbrook, you are one of the voices of sanity! I doubt that there would have been any need for regulation if all companies/businesses were not cutting corners to maximize profit at the expense of their workers and the general public at large. While there are some stupid regulations that should be discarded, the fact of the matter is that many regulations do indeed save lives. And, in the long run, they may also save businesses lots of money. In hind sight, it’s quite obvious to me that the company that owned that Texas fertilizer plant that exploded and killed and injured all these innocent people is going to end losing tons of money. All because it was short-sighted and failed to comply with safety rules.

    • Thanks. It’s just the most recent of several examples. This is a case of “multiple failures” when it comes to having a regulatory environment. Not only was this plant not checked, but local zoning allowed people to build housing and critical infrastructure around it.

  5. Snoring Dog Studio

    Such a great post, Norbrook. I agree wholeheartedly. And Governor Perry’s excuse was that the state, federal and local regulations were confusing. So, of course, the answer is to do nothing and to allow a bomb to operate next door to an apartment complex. I imagine the local citizens in West are wondering what the hell their state was doing allowing these issues to persist. Now Perry will want the Federal government to come in and help with the cleanup and the costs. And you’re so right about staffing – the Republicans have decimated agencies, cut their funding, and left them with a job that just means putting bandaids on the worst issues. Texas has forever been a state where zoning doesn’t exist, which resulted in neighborhoods that are hideous blights and unsafe as well.

    • That the regulations are confusing is a legitimate complaint, but not attempting to follow them and failing to enforce them is not an excuse. I live with “confusing and multiple agency” regulations. 🙄 In my work, I have to know not only the federal regulations (EPA, USDA, Dept. of the Interior), I also have two different state agencies – Dept. of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency – which have jurisdiction and regulations. Then there’s the township laws and county laws. It gets interesting, and yes, there are conflicting interpretations. But I still have to make the effort.

    • Maike

      We have zoning in San Antonio — one reason why the wingnuts moan that we’ve had a string of “communist” mayors, with the current one being the worst.

      • Those same wingnuts would probably have heart attacks if they lived in some of hte right-wing havens in Florida or elsewhere with their homeowner associations and their “covenants.” 😆

  6. Vic78

    The Governer of a heavily populated state said the regulations were too difficult to follow. What the hell does he think being president is like? He’s really as dumb as I thought he was. As president he would’ve just been ALEC’s monkey. I hope the people of Texas send him back to Ni##^r Head ranch.

    I figured it would take 20 years to fix this mess. That was me being optimistic. I didn’t know we had to convince people that we need OSHA and EPA staffed. Hiring them was supposed to be easy.

    • They’re not all that difficult. 🙄 Sometimes inane, but not all that difficult. For example, I got dinged on an inspection a couple of years back because I’d gone out and bought a can of WD-40 to use. Why did I get dinged? Because when the inspector came through, I didn’t have a material safety data sheet for it. It took me a minute or so to download one, and print it out. Much more time to explain to my boss why I hadn’t done it before. 😆

      More seriously, there news is that it wasn’t the ammonium nitrate that exploded, that they may have had something else (likely urea) that they hadn’t reported. The thing is that every time there’s some incident in one of these “low regulation” states, it’s not the state that has to pick up the pieces and cover the costs, it’s the federal government. That means it’s all the rest of us paying – or subsidizing, if you will – their stupidity.