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In Oil and Coal Disasters, Parallel Tales of Lax Regulation


Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) makes his opening statements before a hearing Tuesday on the accident in the Gulf of Mexico involving the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon. (Pete Marovich/ZUMApress.com)

On the surface, the two accidents couldn’t have been more different. The first occurred in the rugged mountains of Appalachia; the second was more than a thousand miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. One was miles underground; the other thousands of feet underwater. One happened in pursuit of coal; the other in the unending search for domestic oil.

[Environment1]Yet last month’s deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in southern West Virginia, and the more recent fatal blast on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, have at least this much in common: Both were likely preventable, according to a growing number of lawmakers and workplace safety experts — if only federal regulations designed to prevent such disasters had been enforced.

“I don’t believe it is enough to label this catastrophic failure as an unpredictable and unforeseeable occurrence,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said during a Tuesday hearing on the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “If this is like other catastrophic failures of technological systems in modern history … we will likely discover that there was a cascade of failures: technical, human and regulatory.”

The message is clear: Regulations are only as good as the people enforcing them. And Congress, some experts are warning, would do well to recognize that trend as lawmakers contemplate reforms as diverse as those governing coal mines, oil rigs and Wall Street.

Along those lines, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist for the New York Times, noted this week that the problems at the Interior Department are by no means unique. Instead, they represent “a broader pattern that includes the failure of banking regulation and the transformation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency … into a cruel joke.” The common thread, Krugman argued, “is the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology.”

Krugman targeted the Bush administration in particular. But many work safety experts are quick to note that the lax enforcement over the extraction industries represents a much broader trend, beginning well before Bush took office, and extending well beyond his exit. Along the way, federal enforcement agencies have been stacked, at times, with anti-regulation regulators — many of whom still remain. And the industries have showered millions of dollars on Congress in order to persuade lawmakers that, when it comes to protecting workers, business knows best. The results have been predictable.

“We have a strong anti-regulatory bent in this country,” said Celeste Monforton, former work-safety official in the Labor Department who’s now at George Washington University, “Regulation is like a four-letter word.”

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, which is leased by BP, the Interior Department is now under a microscope on several fronts. For one thing, the Minerals Management Service granted the rig a “categorical exclusion” from a federal law designed to protect the environment from significant spills. (The agency simply didn’t believe that such a spill was possible from that project.) And quite separately, the MMS has spent the last decade transferring most of its safety-enforcement duties to the industry, in effect allowing the drillers to police themselves. The trend has led lawmakers, in the wake of last month’s deadly accident, to accuse the agency of being too close to those it’s charged with regulating.

“Clearly, stronger, more independent oversight of oil company activities is needed,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate Environment Committee, said during a separate hearing on the spill Tuesday afternoon.

Acknowledging that problem, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Tuesday that the agency plans to split the MMS into two separate entities: One would be charged with inspecting rigs and enforcing safety measures; the other would be responsible for managing leases and collecting royalties.

Similar regulatory questions have dogged the Mine Safety and Health Administration, particularly following the April 5 blast in Raleigh County, W.Va., that killed 29 miners. In the days and months leading up to the explosion, federal investigators had cited the mine for a long list of safety violations. Ultimately, though, they didn’t take any steps to close the operation down. A number of mine-safety experts have charged that MSHA leaders simply didn’t want to confront the powerful mining industry, even in the name of miner safety.

Ken Hechler, former West Virginia congressman and lead sponsor of a 1969 law that overhauled mining safety, said that his bill gives MSHA officials all the authority they needed to close down the troubled mine — if they had chosen to exercise it.

“The legislation is there on the books. You can tell in black and white precisely what it means,” Hechler said in a recent phone interview. “This is why I regard MSHA as partially responsible [for the tragedy].”

Most observers are quick to caution that the cause of neither the Gulf spill nor the West Virginia blast have yet been discovered — and might not be learned for months to come. Indeed, investigators in West Virginia haven’t been able to enter the UBB mine yet, due to the accumulation of toxic gases. And emergency workers around the Deepwater Horizon are still concentrating all of their efforts on stopping the gusher, which is still spewing crude oil into the Gulf at a rate of 5,000 barrels per day.

There’s also a strong sense that the companies themselves should bear most of the blame if it’s discovered that they simply ignored existing safety measures. Peter Galvin, a former MSHA official, noted that both BP and Massey Energy, which owns the UBB mine, have troubling safety records. “In both cases, we have a large and very wealthy parent corporation with a history of ignoring worker safety and health risks until it is too late,” he said in an email.

Still, when companies fail to protect their employees, then it falls on regulators to intervene. And if they’re not doing it, Hechler said, then Congress needs to step in to force their hands.

“This process of writing good laws that are not enforced,” he said, “somehow has to be toughened to require the enforcement.”

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