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.