Too many activists and elected officials believe the solution to any problem is to create more layers of regulation and legislation. The attitude seems almost to be “Let’s just make it illegal for bad things to happen.” The truth, of course, is that there are already a multitude of laws in place that could have prevented disasters such as the chemical leak into the Elk River last month. Could have, that is, had they been enforced.
Central West Virginia residents continue to suffer not because there were not enough laws in place to protect them, but, most likely, because of a failure of responsibility and accountability. Lots of people failed to do their jobs and uphold their responsibilities.
Now, a spill in North Carolina proves no amount of rules was able to keep tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water out of the Dan River. Volumes of federal and state regulation, not least of which the vaunted Clean Water Act, were already in place with the idea of preventing such a spill. But Duke Energy appears to have believed it was better off financially to depend on lax enforcement and pay the occasional token settlement or fine than to actually inspect and repair the leaky coal ash dumps, of which nearly everyone seems to have been aware.
Politicians are usually able to quiet their constituency and ease their consciences by introducing new legislation, often with keywords referring to the latest catastrophe prominently displayed in the bills. Once in a while, these rules make a difference. But most of the time, as was demonstrated most recently in North Carolina, they join the ranks of those gathering dust while back-room deals, corporate gymnastics, apathy, and maybe even the failure of one person to complete the latest round of inspections, make them irrelevant.
Somewhere between members of Congress and the folks afraid to drink their water are any number of officials, executives and workers on the ground who ignored laws already in place, and chose not to do their jobs. Part of the problem is that there are so many layers of regulation in place, that everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility to do the right thing.
Retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., couldn’t resist sarcastically attacking the victims of the latest round of industrial negligence when he decried “Scotch-Irish culture I’m sorry, fatalism,” while he simultaneously lamented the anti-regulation “Appalachian myth.”
He is wrong, of course, and appeared not to realize he was admitting as much when he also said, “Industry does everything they can and gets away with it almost all the time, whether it’s the coal industry or water or whatever. They will cut corners, and they will get away with it.”
Using the phrase “gets away with it,” implies Rockefeller understands there are already laws in place, and those laws are being broken with little or no consequence. Any new laws put in place will be broken, too. Our hope lies not in new laws on the books, but in renewed enforcement, accountability and responsibility on the part of those who really can make a difference.