Tom Eblen

Regulators have helped in matters of water, coal

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

Last week's newspapers were filled with vows from leaders of the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to eliminate "job-killing" government regulation.

But there also were several reports showing why regulation is needed — in Kentucky and elsewhere — and how a lack of effective regulation helped create many of our nation's problems.

A favorite target of the anti-regulation crowd is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has become more interested in doing its job since Barack Obama became president.

A news story last week reported the formal end of a four-year legal case in which the EPA forced Lexington to fix problems with its sanitary and storm sewers. For years, those problems caused streams to be polluted and sewage to flow from manholes during heavy rains.

Because Lexington's sewer problems were ignored for so long, the fix will be expensive: as much as $300 million over 10 years, plus a $425,000 fine for the city's persistent violation of the Clean Water Act.

City officials had long ignored the problems. Then, in 2006, a group of local citizens threatened to sue the city unless the EPA stepped in. That prompted the EPA to file a lawsuit that forced the Urban County Council and Mayor Jim Newberry to act.

Were it not for the EPA, would Lexington be fixing its sewers now? "The answer is no," said Scott White, an attorney for the citizens group. "The EPA had the juice and the resources to make it happen."

Other news stories told of renewed battles between the EPA and the coal industry, whose frequent violations of the Clean Water Act are part of a long history of environmental damage that coal mining has inflicted on Appalachia.

Mine safety regulators also are getting tough following accidents last year that killed 48 miners, including six in Kentucky. That was the highest number of mine deaths in any year since 1992, and it included 29 miners killed at a West Virginia mine owned by Massey Energy.

Other news reports chronicled an out-of-court settlement that gives the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration new power to crack down on safety violations at a Massey mine in Pike County. The case is likely to give regulators more clout in dealing with other mine operators who persistently violate safety rules.

Beyond Kentucky, headlines last week told of the initial findings of a presidential commission investigating BP's Deepwater Horizon well disaster, which killed 11 men and spilled nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The commission said BP and contractors Transocean and Halliburton exercised poor management and cut corners to save time and money. Commission co-chairman Bob Graham also faulted regulators, saying they "lacked the authority, the necessary resources and the technical expertise to prevent" the disaster.

Critics can always find examples of government over-regulation that make good anecdotes. But the consequences of under-regulation are often more severe. And don't forget that Wall Street deregulation was a major cause of the economic crisis from which we are still trying to recover.

Expect to hear more calls for less government regulation, especially from politicians who fill their pockets with corporate campaign contributions. Some will cleverly say they are not against sensible regulation, they just think it should be handled at the state or local level, where they know it can easily be neutered by economic and political pressures.

If you want to see what happens when industry is free from regulation, look at China's coal industry, where mine fatalities occur at an average rate of 200 a month, or the oil industry's wells in Nigeria, where decades of frequent spills have turned vast sections of the country into wasteland.

Balancing economic interests with human safety and the environment is never easy. But ask yourself what kind of country you want to live in and pass down to future generations. Regulation actually may "kill" a job now and then, but the lack of it can be much more deadly.