29 miners dead in mine explosion possibly caused by build up of methane gas triggered by poor ventilation, British Petroleum off shore drilling rig explodes killing 11 people and spilling millions of gallons of oil into the gulf of Mexico. These are the headlines; these are some of America’s most dangerous jobs and the most needed. But in light of recent events, it leaves many to wonder who is in charge of some of the most delicate, vital things that make this country and the world run; why is it no one seems to be paying attention until there is a body count, a disaster to clean up? Why is it only then people ask questions? Why is it only then people worry about the consequences; why is it always after the fact we find out about misconduct, mismanagement, rule breaking? How is it that companies with shady histories of safety and operation manage not only continue to function and employ workers, but expand, get new contracts, do new things? Why is it routinely a case of regulators, inspectors and oversight asleep at the switch, organizations so multi-layered no one knows what is going on?
For example after the rescue effort was launched to find survivors of the West Virginia mine disaster, it was discovered that this mining company had a long history of fines in the millions of dollars, a history of citations for poor ventilation and a host of other safety breaches 122 violations this year alone. Why wasn’t this particular mine shut down seems almost too stupid a question to have to ask, and yet there it is. Not only that but also uncovered was a cozy relationship between the mine company’s CEO and regulators. The system was and is such that the company was making enough profit, they simply paid their fines rather than make an effort to fix any of the problems. Citations were nothing more than pieces of paper thrown at them to be ignored while working conditions and safety situations got worse and worse, and no one stopped it.
The gulf oil spill is an even more egregious case; not only did the 3 blow out preventers fail to work, but these people, British Petroleum (BP) again have a history of accidents, disasters to their credit. The Texas City refinery explosion in 2005, an Alaska pipeline leak in 2006; once more it’s a situation best described as how did this company manage to get an exploratory drilling permit to begin with? Further, 30 days after the spill the race is still on to stop the oil gushing from the ocean floor, oil now making landfall. Ideas for cleaning up the mess have included 2 sizes of top hat, a device designed to cover the gushing pipe and siphon oil to the surface, plugging the leak with junk, plastic, old tires, chemicals placed in the gulf to break up the oil, relief wells that will take months to create. The idea of inserting a smaller tube to plug the leak and divert the oil has had limited success, but thousands of gallons are still pouring into the ocean. As one congressional investigator put it, people expect technological solutions on par with the Apollo project not project runway, only for the public to find out that BP had no emergency clean up plan and, to add insult to injury, for those who were injured or cannot work due to the damage done to the gulf, they were actually able to file for a waver not to have such a plan.
Unfortunately it is not just some of the most dangerous and needed jobs it’s everywhere; Toyota continued to sell a model of truck in the US, with reported steering problems, after it was recalled in Japan. Citas, a company involving laundry, had large dyers that became clogged daily; video shows people forced to climb into dryers to dislodge stuck fabric items. One man died when he fell in. People were encourage not to report injuries, company officials asking injured workers to come in and watch videos so no days of work would be missed and no report would be filed with regulatory bodies like OSHA. Standards were criticized by the Bush administration because the mandates in place merely required companies to report things on a kind of honor system.
Systemic problems are not just with the companies themselves but with the policies in place to manage their oversight; we operate a 3 strikes law in multiple states involving criminals, a law so severe it has given people life in prison for 1 joint, stealing a can of baby formula, because it was their 3rd strike. Why on earth would we not employ something of the same system in highly volatile work places like those detailed here; you get 3 of the same violations and your business is shut down until problems are resolved. You get 3 related violations, particularly those attached to health and safety, and your business is shut down. There should be a reasonable cap on the number of violations these types of companies can get in a year before they are shut down permanently. Either one of said measures would have prevented what happened in that West Virginia mine saving 29 lives. Foreign makers of commodities like cars perhaps should be barred from selling products in the US or face US management takeovers, when things like the Toyota scandal come to light. You should have to have a pristine record in all areas to get the kind of experimental permit BP got its hands on. Organizations that do not properly manage oversight are dismantled for those that can do it right.
Neither should you be able to have the kind of horrendous safety record that BP had then get an additional permit in the same line of work; after what happened in 2005 and 2006, they should have never been issued an exploratory drilling permit; it is one thing to monitor what they already operate, entirely different to let them add to potential destruction. If they were going to issue the permit, it should have come with additional scrutiny; more inspections, supervision should be a standard practice once any violation is detected. Part of what has come to light during all of the mayhem is not a lack of regulations but the fact no one is following them. One person looking at the oil business in the gulf as a whole commented that it’s treated like a third world country; the perception is you can do whatever you want out there. Then when catastrophe happened, things got so desperate for BP that they opened an online forum where the public could submit ideas for containing and cleaning the oil spill. And people had all kinds of ideas from hay to feathers to Metamucil for cleaning up all that oil.
Everyone involved in the BP explosion aftermath is now scrambling to minimize the toll this takes on the environment and livelihoods, yet they look like people caught with their pants down. Top hats inhibited by ice crystals, robotic tools that cannot get the job done, solutions not tried at such depth, in such conditions, nearly a month passed before stemming at least some of the oil flow with the smaller tube inserted. No one has yet to think of patching the hole or welding it shut. Now they are trying to plug the hole with mud and concrete, something political commentator Chris Mathews pointed out could have been done a month ago. Another reason BP shouldn’t have been given a permit, at one more key point, they don’t know what they are doing, they had zero methods to handle their drilling rig in that environment, and neither do government entities sent to help. Analysts cannot determine how much oil is really out there; experts cannot tell what the consequences of the oil might be, not just because of the massive amount but due to the consistency of it, the dispersants used. Scientist cannot confirm or deny possible damage to coral reefs, the potential death of wildlife.
Common sense says you don’t allow anyone, least of all a place of business in this line of work, to obtain a waver not to file an emergency plan; however, it’s one thing to wave it for a month, even six, while the company tests their experiment, observes operating conditions, taking time to formulate an appropriate plan. After that someone should be following up to make sure a plan is filed, if not, business is shut down; likewise the viability of a submitted plan should be tested. If the plan is faulty, business is halted. That is the way it has to work, exactly what is not working currently. In fact the governments mineral management services missed what amounted to a years worth of inspections on all offshore drilling platforms like the one owned by BP, inspections meant to take place every 30 days.
We also need a common sense White House not a president who took weeks to suspend the issuance of new off shore drilling permits, not a president who was mere months ago championing nuclear energy because of it’s lack of carbon emissions, who gave 8 billion dollars to the development of new US nuclear facilities. Instead we have a president that makes the ordinary person, not just the environmentalists, nervous about possible ecological damage to the planet and people. We need a precautionary White House not a president and other officials so enamored with the estimated energy returns, equivalent to removing 3.5 million cars from the road, that they are willing to forget the lessons of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl.
Talking about automatic shut off valves, top notch regulation, inspection and operation does no good, because that’s what we were suppose to have with BP, that’s what should have happened with the coal mine and it didn’t. Even more frightening, unlike the coal mining, off shore drilling and other methodologies involving fossil fuels, nuclear energy cannot be made safe. Not only is there no concrete US strategy for dealing with deadly nuclear waste, lasting thousands of years, there is no strategy that can be devised, with current technology, to neutralize the devastating effects should something go wrong. Imagine something the size of the BP spill involving nuclear waste; imagine if all the hearings, investigations and inquires yield no real change to the current state of affairs. And only time will tell if the events detailed here will cause the Obama administration to rethink its energy and environmental policies.
But, from the reaction to things like BP, the Virginia coal mine even Toyota, it seems Americans should brace themselves for more of the same, more catastrophes, more ecological damage reaching into their lives and wallets as seafood prices skyrocket, an already devastated region takes what may well be a deathblow economically. Americans should prepare for more competition in the workforce as out of work fisherman and related industries look for other jobs in order to survive, they should steel themselves for the next horrifying headline, if nothing else while Washington decides on a course of action, a new set of guidelines.