Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Monday, January 13, 2014

West Virginia's Contamination Of Our Political Discourse

I have to admit I'm loving this West Virginia contaminated water supply story. It's like a neat introductory course to everything that's wrong with our political system.

The Story

- On 1/9/2014 a chemical storage company called Freedom Industries leaked a chemical used in coal processing into the Elk River next to a water processing plant.

- Unsurprisingly, how much was actually leaked remains a mystery.

- Freedom Industries reported the leak to authorities and water supply users in 9 counties were ordered not to use tap water for anything other than flushing toilets. Authorities originally called this a 'precaution', but judging by the several 100 cases of poisoning treated by various medical facilities in the counties despite said warning - there does appear to have been a significant amount of contamination.

- On the bright side - no deaths, no sign of permanent health damage, FEMA delivered clean water to alleviate most of the displaced demand, and as I'm writing this the water in some locales is being turned back on.

Facts Of the Regulatory Framework and Response

- According the State's Department of Environmental Protection, the company's storage tanks and retaining walls would have failed any inspection performed regularly on companies permitted in the State to produce these types of chemicals.

- However, Freedom Industries does not produce chemicals, it only stores them; and in West Virginia there are no regulations or permits on those services.

- County officials in Kanawha where the leak actually took place have accused Freedom Industries of under-reporting the volume of the leak and showing a lack of urgency in initial efforts to contain it. However, the officials chalked both up to the company not seeming to understand the magnitude of what they'd done, as opposed to willful negligence.

- WV Governor Earl Ray Tomblin mentioned that he would revisit the State's regulatory framework of chemical storage facilities.

The story certainly shines light on some problems and irresponsible behavior by some actors, but by itself it is relatively unexciting. And like most unexciting stories filled with boring technical facts, it has quickly grown into a propaganda spectacle for all sides of the political equation. If you're tempted to laugh as you read the next section, recall that the people who write this shit have audiences, and that those audiences vote.

Lies and Inventions Of the Resulting Propagandist Feeding Frenzy

- Firstly, there is an epidemic of inventing numbers.

Determining the amount leaked in a situation like this takes months, and it is hardly a priority as water quality determinations don't yield that number. However, everyone seems to have their own number, one that magically works out to shock their audiences in whichever direction they want.

- There are multiple memes being passed around on discussion forums implicating WV's "Republican voting" and being an "anti-regulation, red State"; and go on to predict this will happen nationwide if those "anti-regulation Republicans" have their way.

The problem is WV being "red" and "Republican" is a downright lie. Democrats control both Houses of the WV State Legislature. Both their US Senators (Joe Manchin and John Rockefeller IV) are Democrats; as was the late Robert Byrd - one of the longest-serving Democratic Senators in US history. Their earlier-mentioned Governor - yup, a Democrat. The only time West Virginia turns red is in Presidential elections, and even that is a recent development; they voted for Bill Clinton both times.

- Another common meme affliction is to bring in every liberal's favorite boogeyman - Koch Industries, by mentioning that Freedom Industries is "Koch affiliated". For this reason, of course, those imaginary Republicans that dominate West Virginia exempt it from everything.

The problem with this is extremely generous use of the word "affiliated". The chemicals that leaked were produced by a subsidiary of Koch Industries, but Freedom Industries was an independent contractor paid to store them. If that constitutes affiliation, we ought to try saying Edge of Chaos is affiliated with Google seeing as they host this blog to see if that boosts our page views - except we would get sued.

- My favorite pro-Obama propaganda rag apparently employs psychics, as they conclude the linked article blaming "Republican deregulation" with the prediction that "there is not the slightest chance that Republicans will hold a company named Freedom Industries serving the dirty energy sector accountable to lift a finger or spend one penny to compensate victims of the spill."

Seeing as the Republicans in control of WV are imaginary, this is actually on target. But somehow I doubt that's what they meant to say.

- A conservative counter-meme being passed around actually BLAMES regulation in saying that the leaked chemical is only present in such amounts because Federal regulations require its use in coal processing.

REALLY? Could I strangle someone with my seat belt, and then blame the government for requiring my car to have one?

The list goes on but I believe everyone gets the point. The general population has 0 expertise on water purity and chemical processing, and probably does not even realize which party controls WV. Hence, this relatively inconsequential public nuisance attracts countless political buzzards adept at using popular ignorance to shock and mislead Americans into polarized opinions on political issues that have nothing to do with the situation. If you have a problem with our polarized political system and stubborn propensity to place ideology before reason, these propagandists are your culprits. I urge you to take a stand and publicly expose them everywhere you encounter them.

Now, going back to boring social science, let's try an objective analysis of this situation.

Analysis Of the Factual Situation

The various politicians and bureaucrats responding seem to agree the problem is that regulations on the storage of chemicals don't apply to companies whose sole purpose is to store chemicals. Granted, that IS pretty stupid. But the only people who gasp and sigh about regulatory stupidity are those with very little understanding of regulatory frameworks.

Unfortunately for those who believe we can regulate the world into safety and equality, society does not simply break down along neatly organized bureaucratic lines. The regulations in question were written for the licensing of chemical producers. It was never their intention to apply to anyone that stores chemicals (which would include not only storage companies but transporters, consumers, and applied broadly enough even non-commercial home users). They could theoretically be re-written to simply regulate chemical storage in the State regardless of purpose; but then they would apply to a wide range of stakeholders licensed by different bureaucracies and, if written poorly or corruptly, disadvantage small businesses that don't have the volume to handle the costs. This would raise the need for ever more complicated exemptions and special treatment, all of which means more costly and complicated implementation bureaucracies. I could go on but I believe my readers understand the basic principle. This problem is ill-defined and complex, far moreso than the simple-minded regulation groupies cheering "government ought to prevent this and protect us" care to understand.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say the politicians DO understand this - but rather than acknowledging it, they use popular ignorance in their own way to gain cheap popularity. A theoretically beneficial regulatory framework would require an impartial cost-benefit analysis of all the specifics of WV, and such a thing will never happen. These studies cost an arm and a leg, and politicians are rarely impartial to their findings so whoever is paid to conduct it is likely to be paid to find what the hiring party wants. Then there are the stakeholders on the other side of the political equation - corporations for whom the desired findings will raise costs, bureaucracies from whom they would take authority, etc.. Those stakeholders will lobby their own politicians to derail the study's implementation into law, usually by changing the legislative language. And at every twist and turn, there will be armies of "activists", propagandists, and memesters spewing mind-numbing bullshit in advocacy of each side. When I say government is nothing more than a tool for various special interests to compete with each other and lacks the capacity to serve the public interest - THIS is what I mean. It doesn't require billions of dollars worth of embezzlement and corruption.

But even having magically found the right theoretical regulation, there's the problem of executing it. To those speculating that regulation "would have" prevented this, I say 'how do you know?' Even where regulations are present, negligence happens. Remember Deepwater Horizon? Sometimes it's a genuine accident, other times it is the result of companies shirking regulations to cut costs in hopes the inspection will miss the violations. The myth that regulatory inspections catching every violation is comforting but it's also moronic, this is simply infeasible and most inspectors openly rely on samples on top of succumbing to their own resource limitations and incompetence. Judging by the rhetoric and fear-mongering, we should be hearing about daily water contamination spills in WV where these regulations are absent - and yet it happened once and has constituted a Federal emergency and a week of national headlines, indicating it's quite uncommon.

Nor is it likely to go unpunished. Even if Freedom Industries didn't violate any regulations, they are still liable for astronomical amounts in damages and are likely to be bankrupted by civil lawsuits - an important and perfectly free-market compatible check on negligent operation that corporations fear far more than regulatory bureaucracies.


So color me radical, but yes I'm saying this is not an indicator of need for more or better regulations. Theoretically they MAY be beneficial, but practically speaking the benefit of avoiding the bureaucratic clusterfuck I just outlined far outweighs the cost of an extremely rare, short-term water contamination that results in a few illnesses and the looming bankruptcy of the negligent company that allowed it. I'm also saying any attempt to generalize this to the national issue of deregulation is vague at best. What I've said about government incapacity and incompetence applies, but its costs really have to be weighed against the specifics of every domain. I do contend, however, that anyone using this to claim widespread deregulation would bring the apocalypse is blowing speculative smoke.


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