Safety agencies need to be impartial

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By Merilee Dannemann

The explosion of the fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas, a few weeks ago, killed dozens of people, injured many more, and blew the walls off numbers of buildings. Has that affected your thinking about how to reduce the cost of government?
Texas Gov. Rick Perry commented in a televised interview that maybe we need to consider toughening the regulations on the storage of such dangerous chemicals.
That’s the same Rick Perry who, as a presidential candidate, famously called for the elimination of three major federal agencies and couldn’t remember one of them. Eliminating government excess sounds a whole lot easier in fuzzy generalities than in the wake of a tragedy.
Shall we reduce the staffing of the agencies that enforce the regulation of the storage of explosive chemicals? Regulations generally are effective only when regulatory agencies are capable of enforcing them. Do you need more evidence? Think back to Wall Street, 2008, and policies based on the belief — expressed by the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, among others — that the financial industry would regulate itself.
Recent news reports revealed that an official of the state Construction Industries Division had deliberately concealed some 500 requests for electrical inspections related to oil field operations in southeastern New Mexico. He knew they could not perform those inspections, he said, because the agency is so understaffed. Aren’t you glad none of your family members are working at those job sites?
In the recent fracas over the furloughing of air traffic controllers due to the federal sequester, I heard not a single suggestion that air traffic controllers represented wasteful spending that would OK to cut. And no one said the airlines should maintain regular schedules without benefit of guidance from the ground.
The technological marvels of our modern world create safety hazards that have never existed before, and that require specialized knowledge to understand and prevent. Safety enforcement cannot be left to businesses to do for themselves because some companies will be too greedy to spend the necessary money, while others may create hazards out of ignorance or error. We need impartial safety regulators — paid by the taxpayers — not only for their knowledge, but also for the ability to make rational evaluations in placing public safety above financial interests.
What regulatory agencies owe us in return is excellence, efficiency, financial accountability, sound judgment and competent management. We don’t always get that. I’m convinced there are savings to be found in the bureaucratic structure.