Everyone hates government oversight…until it’s desperately needed

Explosions and fires at a Houston-area chemical plant triggered an evacuation Thursday in a region still in chaos from Hurricane Harvey — and generated new criticism of President Donald Trump’s efforts to repeal the industry’s safety rules. Thursday morning’s blasts at the plant came just a day after a federal court refused to force the Environmental Protection Agency to implement an Obama-era chemical safety regulation that the Trump administration has delayed until 2019. The site’s owner, Arkema, has complained about the burdens of the rule, which the EPA created after a 2015 explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people, injured about 200 others and destroyed hundreds of homes.

What’s the primary function of government if not to protect its people? Even it you believe government to be the problem and not the solution, that should be a no-brainer. Government’s role shouldn’t be to elevate business interests over protecting the safety and well-being of people. Despite that, it’s beginning to become very clear that the federal government is now heavily invested in prioritizing business over people.

The battle against a “profits before people” attitude is as old as the Republic, but the feds are no longer even pretending to care about the people it represents. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t even making a pretense of protecting the environment. It’s all about ensuring Big Business is provided every opportunity to make as much money as possible. That such an attitude represents a considerable abdication of the responsibility to protect Americans seems not to matter at all. Of course, people don’t fill Republican campaign coffers nearly as much as do corporations.

The rule in question probably wouldn’t have prevented Thursday’s explosions, but it’s aimed at reducing the likelihood of future accidents — and ensuring that emergency responders and the public know what types of dangerous substances they might be exposed to. Firefighters and other emergency crews lack much of that crucial information about the plants and factories now awash with floodwater.

“It’s extremely frustrating, it’s disheartening, it’s unfair to the communities that face these risks,” Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said of the regulatory rollbacks the administration is pushing. “Not just in a natural disaster-type situation, but on a daily basis.”

Collapsed chemical tank roofs, machinery malfunctions and other accidents in the Houston area have sent more than 1,000 tons of dangerous chemicals into the air following days of pummeling from Harvey, according to a POLITICO analysis of incident filings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Sometimes, toxic chemicals sit in huge storage tanks that border residents’ backyards.

While Rick Perry was Governor, Texas was known for defaulting to the advantage of business- very often at the expense at the people he was elected to serve. Just asked the residents of West, Texas, home to the worst industrial disaster in Texas history. A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant killed 15, injured 260, and damaged or destroyed more than 150 buildings.

The chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (USCSB) stated the explosion in West “never should have occurred,” and attributed it to lax oversight of the plant by the state. USCSB’s report on the explosion speaks for itself. It’s clear that the explosion was a direct result of poor (truthfully, nonexistent) oversight and irresponsible, cavalier management of the plant.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the cost of laissez-faire government oversight can no longer be ignored. The Houston area has long been the hub of the nation’s petrochemical industry, and the amount of toxic chemicals used and produced there is stunning. This past week has shown what can happen when things go horribly wrong. Too many refineries and chemical plants simply weren’t up to the task of protecting themselves- and those around them- from the impact of a major natural disaster.

The estimate of upwards of 1000 tons of toxic chemicals released during and immediately after the storm is no small thing in an area where many plants and refineries are surrounded by residential neighborhoods.

“Emergency responders don’t have the information they need about what’s being stored at the facilities,” Craft said. “And because these facilities have flooded, and underground tank contents are coming up, all of that will magnify what we had with Katrina.”

Another worry is air pollution worsened by the volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide that refineries and chemical plants are spewing, which Craft said may endanger flood victims who suffer from asthma and other respiratory or cardiac problems. The Texas environmental commission has forecast that air quality in Houston will be “unhealthy for sensitive groups” at least through the weekend.

The crisis at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby is merely the most extreme example of what can happen when dangerous chemicals are produced in a residential area and all Hell breaks loose. The refusal to require the enforcement of the rule in question may not have prevented the looming crisis at the Arkema facility in Crosby. What it represents is a refusal to acknowledge the risks using and producing in a large metropolitan area represents. Government regulation and oversight may be widely believed to be intrusive and oppressive…until a hurricane blows through and we learn WHY such regulation and oversight is important.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board might seem at first glance to be the purview of overly officious bureaucratic busybodies…and so they’re an easy target for those who wish to neutralize attempts at oversight. This is of particular concern in an era when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) no longer defines its mission as protecting the environment. The “EP” in “EPA” has been reduced to an oxymoron.

Trump’s proposed budget for next year would eliminate all funding for the board, which issues safety recommendations but cannot directly enforce regulations.

Meanwhile, county emergency workers acknowledged they have no idea what other chemical plants in the area might pose an immediate risk.

“We are personally not monitoring” the status of chemicals kept in other plants in Harvey’s path, said Bob Royall, the county’s assistant chief of emergency operations. “That is industry’s responsibility.”

Public health advocates say the incident adds to the need for carrying out the Obama administration rule, which would require companies to provide more public information about the chemicals they’re storing, encourage them to look for safer alternatives and mandate third-party safety audits.

“The longer EPA delays the chemical disaster rule, the longer those types of assessments and investments will be delayed,” Nelson said. “We’re in a crisis situation here, and making policies or creating policies or buckling to industry pressure has real everyday life-or-death impacts to people.”

When the prevailing narrative is that oversight and regulation is something “That is industry’s responsibility,” what you end up with is what’s happening in and around Houston now. No one likes government oversight…until that oversight becomes necessary.

Job One for government should be the protection of its people. Unfortunately, the people have elected a President whose priority is protecting the interests of business over the safety and well-being of its people. Putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA is merely the most obvious example of the “wolf guarding the chicken coop” mentality which dominates the federal government these days.

Nice work, America.

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