Environmental regulations serve the public interest

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Bernie Niemeier
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A couple of years ago, Southern Virginia was deeply divided. To some, the existence of large underground uranium deposits near Chatham represented a job-creating economic opportunity. To others, uranium mining was an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Mining proponents were quick to point out that such operations are carried out safely elsewhere, so why not in Virginia, where a uranium mining moratorium had been in effect since the early 1980s?

Not surprisingly, the General Assembly followed its time-proven approach to controversy — first the moratorium, then an industry study and talk of regulations, followed by a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) review.  If all parties are not completely satisfied, add more time and repeat until the commonwealth’s collective attention span is exhausted.  When campaign money is on both sides of an argument, some might call this the Virginia Way.

In the end, the opposition won the battle, but the war will inevitably return.  After all, the uranium is still there and so is the need for campaign funding.

All this sounds a bit too skeptical, perhaps even jaded.  So, too, did the radioactive groundwater Armageddon scenarios of the environmentalists — at least until a few months ago.

In early February, North Carolina-based Duke Energy spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River from a fractured pipe running under a retention pond near Eden, N.C. The spill coated the river bottom 70 miles downstream, through Danville, South Boston and into the John. H. Kerr Reservoir.  This was the third-largest U.S. coal ash spill on record.  The Eden site is one of 32 retention ponds maintained by Duke in North Carolina.

Then in late April, a train derailed in Lynchburg, destroying three tanker cars and spilling thousands of gallons of crude oil into the James River.  The Bakken shale oil rush in North Dakota has turned America’s rail systems into moving pipelines, carrying a particularly volatile grade of light crude packed with flammable natural gas.

The number of trains carrying Bakken crude has jumped from fewer than 10,000 tank carloads four years ago to more than 400,000 last year.  Many of them move through large cities to ports and refineries.

In another case of crumbling infrastructure, it turns out that nearly 70 percent of America’s fleet of rail tank cars needs to be replaced or retrofitted to meet higher safety standards.  Furthermore, the railroads often don’t own these cars.  The vast majority are owned or leased by the customers who use them.  Just where are projects like the Keystone Pipeline when you really need them? Certainly not in anyone’s backyard.

There have been nine oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada since March 2013.  After the Lynchburg spill, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a nonbinding safety advisory suggesting that shippers use the sturdiest railcars in their fleet to carry Bakken crude.  A safety advisory has less weight than an emergency order, and it was immediately criticized for not going far enough by calling only for voluntary compliance.

Regulatory agencies are easily damned — for what they do and for what they don’t.  A populist stump speech line from last year’s statewide elections was to refer to the EPA as the “Employment Prevention Agency.”  Now that there’s coal ash and oil in our rivers, maybe it’s time to rethink.

To their credit, both the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads have recognized the problem and advocated tougher tank-car standards.  On the other hand, in the Duke Energy coal ash spill, a too-cozy relationship has been alleged between the company and North Carolina state regulators.

Here’s the rub: Self-regulation works only so well.  Businesses work to mitigate risk.  For the most part this is done through safety programs to reduce operational risk and insurance to reduce financial risk.

Managing risk doesn’t mean eliminating it.  Financial risk in particular is more about who pays when things go wrong than keeping bad things from happening. Insurance policies are bought, repackaged and resold.  Much like mortgage-backed securities, they are sliced and diced to minimize exposure, making the real risks less apparent.

A predilection to blame government for being the problem rather than the solution fails to recognize the legitimate role that it plays in protecting the people’s interest.  Essential services like transportation and public safety necessitate regulation.  Rather than eliminating rules, we should insist that they be created without regard to political interests and that they are consistently and fairly enforced.

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