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The Charleston Chemical Spill supports restructuring of regulatory apparatus

Preventable human disaster with too many unknowns
Preventable human disaster with too many unknowns
Photo by Tom Hindman/Getty Images

The Charleston, West Virginia Chemical Spill, which left the surrounding community’s water suitable only for flushing toilets, raised questions as to whether there is a need for more regulation and greater enforcement of current regulations. Looking at other headline grabbing incidences like the 2008 Kingston Coal Slurry Spill, the 2010 Deep Horizon Gulf Oil Spill, the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Collapse, and so on, it seems there is a need to be more diligent in the enforcement of smarter regulations. In truth, what probably needs to happen is a complete restructuring of America’s safety regulatory and enforcement apparatus.

With innovations come unknowns. When it comes to chemical engineering and novel industrial practices, the unknowns translate into public health and safety concerns. Because our society tends to be more reactive than proactive, the hazards associated with potentially toxic materials and their large-scale application goes unaddressed until a massive chemical spill or other catastrophic accident makes its way into the news. A large part of the EPA’s inability to properly regulate seems to stem from a lack of knowledge when it comes to proprietary products and staffing levels, which seems to be a reoccurring issue.

Looking back at 2007 when massive recalls of Chinese imports contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic materials dominated the news cycle, many questioned if the FDA had enough people to meet their ever-growing responsibilities. It seems an emerging pattern in agencies likes the FDA and EPA suggests the capacity of our government to provide proper oversight is inadequate. While increasing human and other resources is likely needed, there must also be smarter management of those resources, which might include private entities taking on a greater inspection and investigation role with public entities aggressively auditing such firms.

Although the Consumer Financial Production Agency was established in 2011 to protect our finances when businesses wrong customers, the a similar all-inclusive government defender does not exist to prevent harm to individuals and the environment. It is also important to remember the EPA was first organized in the 1970s while the FDA was steadily built from initiatives started in the early 1900’s with reforms here and there. As such, it stands to reason these and other agencies were never designed to operate in the Information Age where constant innovation and an exponential growth of knowledge translates into a continual need to adapt oversight.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the DHS was established with the expressed goal of better coordinating the resources of federal, state, and local agencies to improve national security and responses to emergency situations. Where the DHS fell short of these expectations, due to interagency power struggles and other issues, a similar effort to consolidate and better coordinate the human and other resources of non-policing entities like the EPA, FDA, OSHA, CDC, FEMA, etc. could succeed. If done probably, such an initiative would streamline regulations, better regulatory oversight, improve regulatory enforcement, and strengthen support of emergency responders.