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Regulatory Agencies and Industrial Accidents

The incidence of large-scale industrial accidents seems to be on the rise. Most recently, of course, was the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed eleven rig workers and resulted in the United States' worst oil spill in history. The Deepwater Horizon incident comes on the heels of mine and refinery explosions around the country this year.

Some feel that these incidents are not random accidents; nor is the inaction of the government following these tragedies. Rather, the ineffectiveness of federal agencies charged with oversight of safety is to blame. In the wake of devastating industrial accidents that claim the lives of workers and cost billions of dollars for taxpayers, Congress and federal regulatory agencies have been lagging in their response.

However, there are many reasons that regulatory agencies do not seem to be doing their jobs. For one, sometimes these agencies are given contradictory assignments by Congress. For example, before the Minerals Management Service was reorganized, its duties included maximizing royalties from offshore drilling while, at the same time, ensuring the safety of rig workers. Likewise, the Federal Aviation Administration is required to ensure the commercial viability of United States air carriers while also protecting the safety of air carriers' passengers.

Also, many agencies lack the resources to effectively execute their duties. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has only 135 inspectors who are responsible for tracking 2.3 million miles of pipeline in addition to monitoring almost one million daily shipments of hazardous material by land, sea and air.

Still other members of federal agencies act more as advocates for the industry they oversee, as opposed to acting in the best interests of the workers and consumers they are charged with protecting. This is because oftentimes these officials are recruited from the industry they are chosen to regulate. Likewise, some federal agency officials choose to join a private sector company they used to regulate.

Further, campaign contributions may be another issue. Industries and unions have donated millions of dollars to members of congressional committees that oversee their industries. For example, committee members that oversee energy have received over $17 million from those in the energy industry for the 2009-2010 election cycle.

There are many issues involved in the effectiveness of federal regulatory agencies. The hope is that the recent tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon will spark debate and place pressure on Congress to enact reform so that tragic industrial accidents can be avoided or responded to appropriately.   

Source: The Houston Chronicle "Safety regulators caught in revolving doors" 8/15/10

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