Do you really want to cut the safety inspectors?

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 governor 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 New Mexico 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?

You might remember the pipeline explosion 20 miles outside Carlsbad, NM, in August, 2000, that killed two families who were camping nearby. A report issued in 2003 by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the cause was severe internal corrosion of the transmission pipeline; more than 70 percent of the wall had been eaten away near the rupture site. The report blamed both the corrosion control program of El Paso Natural Gas Company and “ineffective Federal pre-accident inspections of El Paso Natural Gas Company that did not identify deficiencies in the company’s internal corrosion control program.”

Remember the cantaloupe infected with listeria in 2011, from a farm just north of us in southern Colorado? The outbreak killed at least 13 people and made others sick. Remember that dozens of people died last year from fungal meningitis caused by an infected medication produced by a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts?

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 okay 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 – but usually not at the front lines where the real work happens.

I ponder, from time to time, how we can cut the costs of government in an era when the demand for government services seems to be continually expanding. There are no simple answers, but the conversation  about priorities – mine and yours — needs to continue, with mutual respect, in greater depth.

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