Saturday, August 23, 2014

Explosive Dust and Regulatory Stasis

From an NYT article on the dangers of explosive dust in factories, I extract this little parable about regulation and democracy:
Dust explosions are readily preventable with engineering controls, ventilation, training and other measures. The voluntary, industry-supported national fire codes have urged these measures for decades, and they now must be codified and enforced through federal regulations.

In 1987, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the United States Department of Labor, promulgated a set of regulations for combustible dust for the grain industry. This resulted in a significant drop in grain dust explosions and an increase in lives saved, at an acceptable financial cost.

Following a study that our board conducted in 2006, we recommended that OSHA establish a comprehensive combustible dust regulatory standard for all industries. The following year, it developed an enhanced enforcement program, but the critical component — a national standard with clear requirements — has yet to be created.

Despite the fact that a dust standard was one of the Obama administration’s earliest regulatory initiatives, there has been little progress because of a daunting rule-making process. Since 1980, a series of laws, executive orders and judicial barriers have virtually paralyzed the government’s ability to issue new safety standards. According to a nonpartisan congressional study, the process can take nearly 20 years from start to finish. Given those conditions, is it any wonder that a recent RAND Corporation report found that American workers are three times more likely than their British counterparts to die on the job?
These measures to keep the government from issuing regulations have come from both parties -- one of the most burdensome laws for Federal employees came out of Al Gore's "reinventing government" initiative. Both parties do this because American voters hate regulations. There is no more sure winner in American politics than running against "Washington red tape."

Are voters wrong to worry about this? I don't think so. I make my living helping my clients navigate one small part of the regulatory maze, and I can tell you that it is daunting. If I tried to explain to you all the steps involved in a complex undertaking like building a new highway or Metro line you probably would not believe it. It takes hundreds of dedicated professionals working for years if not decades to jump through all of the necessary hoops, and it costs tens of millions of dollars.

But what is the alternative? I think we got a good look at a world without "burdensome regulations" recently in North Carolina, where an administration determined to weaken the regulation of industry let Duke Energy oversee its own coal ash ponds. Environmental Cassandras shouted about the danger of this, but they were ignored until a major spill dumped thousands of tons of toxic waste into the Dan River. This led to a judge slapping Duke Energy with a demand that it immediately clean up all the ash, which is probably impossible, and the state legislature is now trying to work out a compromise measure. Compared to this environmental, legal, and political mess, is a set of comprehensive, detailed regulations really so burdensome?

Our industrial economy produces billions of tons of dangerous stuff every year; the leakage of even one percent would destroy us. We, as a society, cannot trust anyone else to protect us from those dangers. Our society also produces vast pools of capital that developers can use to rapidly level whole towns or blast away whole mountains. If we care about the quality of our lives, we cannot let them do whatever they want, either. And yet bureaucracy really is, I believe, one of the great banes of life in our age.

It is a problem without a solution; we can only grope forward as best we can.

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