Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Regulatory Agencies Fail

Originally posted at Main St./workingamerica.org/blog

Why do we have ongoing problems with mines, oil spills, and problems with nuclear power plants? The sad, simple truth is that US regulatory agencies are failing us. From the NY Times:

Federal regulators warned offshore rig operators more than a decade ago that they needed to install backup systems to control the giant undersea valves known as blowout preventers, used to cut off the flow of oil from a well in an emergency.

The warnings were repeated in 2004 and 2009. Yet the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged both with regulating the oil industry and collecting royalties from it, never took steps to address the issue comprehensively, relying instead on industry assurances that it was on top of the problem, a review of documents shows.

Relying on the oil industry to police itself is akin to relying on your five year old to voluntarily keep his hand out of the cookie jar.

Far from being reliable BP fought safety measures at every opportunity:

In a letter sent last year to the Department of the Interior, BP objected to what it called "extensive, prescriptive regulations" proposed in new rules to toughen safety standards. "We believe industry's current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs…continue to be very successful."

Mine safety regulations used to be tougher.

Before every shift worked in an underground coal mine, coal operators are supposed to check for safety problems. Violations are to be marked with a "danger" sign. No one is supposed to go to work until the violations are fixed.

At least that's what federal mine safety law has said since 1969, when Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

But since 1992, that's not what the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has required. That year, the first Bush administration weakened MSHA regulations, requiring mine safety checks to look for violations only if they posed an immediate hazard to miners.

A Congressional hearing on the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine will be held later this month:

The U.S. House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing this month in Beckley, W.Va., to examine the April 5 explosion at Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29.

The committee, led by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., will hear testimony from family members of the miners who died in the blast, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. The hearing is scheduled for May 24 at 9 a.m. at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse in Beckley, which is about an hour east of the mine in Montcoal.

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the explosion last month in Washington, focusing on possible changes to mine safety laws and enforcement by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is charged with enforcing regulations. Here's a particularly grim commentary:

A top federal mine safety official said Tuesday that existing laws and regulations have not been properly enforced but pledged that his agency will now use all its powers after the West Virginia mine disaster that killed 29 people.
Joe Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, told a Senate committee that the Mine Safety and Health Administration will start using its power to immediately shut down mines engaging in unsafe behavior.
Main said the powers have existed for decades but were never used.

How many workers have died as a result?

The aging Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, VT has been in the news over the last few months because of a radioactive tritium leak. Entergy, the owner of the plant first denied there were underground pipes at the plant. From the Times Argus:

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, told reporters at the Statehouse Friday that this week's revelation that the facility does indeed have underground pipes containing radioactive tritium – a fact Yankee officials earlier denied – "threatens the level of trust that Vermonters have in Entergy to provide accurate information about anything."

"The representations made by Entergy were clearly wrong," Smith said. "They told us that there was no radioactive material flowing through those pipes … that was untrue."

Officials from Entergy Nuclear Vermont, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, told state and legislative officials on a number of occasions that those pipes did not carry irradiated water. That includes statements made by Entergy officials under oath to the Vermont Public Service Board.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) planned a private meeting with VT Yankee/Entergy officials, regarding NRC oversight of the plant. The private meeting didn't sit well with folks in VT and NH. NH has 5 communities in the 10 mile evacuation zone of the plant.

Thanks to the intervention of VT and NH legislators a public meeting was held:

Residents and local officials told the NRC during the evening session that the NRC was ineffective because there were few — if any — regulations to hold nuclear companies accountable.

Paul Blanch of West Hartford, Conn., a nuclear consultant and former industry whistleblower, said nuclear companies were taking advantage of the situation.

"Regulations are nonexistent or never enforced," said Blanch, who said that Vermont Yankee could have discharged "10,000 times" the tritium that it did and still not violate any NRC regulations.

People weren't impressed with the NRC as a regulatory agency, and they have every reason to feel that way. From
Beyond Nuclear:

A new report released today by Beyond Nuclear - Leak First, Fix Later: Uncontrolled and Unmonitored Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants - looks at the epidemic of reactors leaking tritium into groundwater. The report finds that the federal regulator – the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission - is ignoring its oversight and enforcement responsibilities at the nation’s increasingly leaky, uninspected and unmaintained nuclear power plants. The report shows that despite agency efforts initiated in 1979 to prevent uncontrolled radioactive releases to groundwater, the NRC is capitulating to an industry decision to take almost three more years before announcing an action plan.

Regulatory agencies must be forced to do their jobs. Paying for the ounce of prevention is cheaper, better for the environment, and it saves lives. We must also pass the The Protecting America's Workers Act.

1 comment:

DissedBelief said...

Thank you for addressing this Susan, as eloquently and in depth as always. In my late 20's I worked for numeous oil companies as well as Halliburton. Business as usual meant operating at high speed and overdrive with as little attention to safety as possible because safety means less profit. We are now seeing the direct results of decades of profiteering in the face of danger culminating in death and enivironmental tragedy. I loved Marvels recent column "Who Needs Republicans". No sooner was Obama's ink dry okaying further drilling than this incident re-woke up all those with very short memories. I have to wonder just how stupid our elected officials are? How many catastrophic accidents is it going to take to stem greed? All those caring individuals who are now in love with the Greek tragedy because they feel it validates their anti-socialism have a wake up call coming. Whenver one finger is pointed at another, three are pointing back at yourselves.