It’s All Downhill From Here . . .

From Eric Alterman, some cheerful reading material for the weekend:

Many [political and economic crises] are more worrisome than the ones that [have] made the front page. [Throughout the 00’s,] entitlements were rising unsustainably. So was US foreign debt to China. Our education system was falling farther and farther behind other Western nations’ as “No Child Left Behind” failed by virtually every appreciable measure, save number of tests given. Fifty-five percent of Americans were on their way to being laid off, having their work hours reduced or being forced into part-time employment. . . . [T]he fact that two-thirds of all economic gains went to the top 1 percent of the population meant stagnation at best for most workers, actual decline for many.

And, almost entirely uncovered by the media, much of our physical infrastructure had corroded to the point of near collapse. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, “More than 26%, or one in four, of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” a problem that would likely cost roughly $17 billion per year to repair, or almost twice what had been budgeted. One-third of America’s major roads are “in poor or mediocre condition and 45 percent of major urban highways are congested.” Its drinking water systems “face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging facilities.” Inland waterways, wastewater systems, levees: all of these crucial systems rate a “D” or lower according the Civil Engineers’ report card. What’s more, this neglect at the federal level is matched by an equal lack of interest in these topics by the mainstream media. A valuable study by Jodi Enda in the American Journalism Review revealed an almost total lack of interest in these issues on the part of virtually every major news organization.

The last point, on media neglect and decline, is particularly relevant to the BP spill:

[B]efore the spill no editor or producer thought to call a reporter and say, Hey, why not take a look at what’s up over at the Minerals Management Service? Almost nothing had been written about the MMS at all of late, save for its now infamous four-year sex scandal. According to MMS spokesman Nicholas Pardi, there’s not a single reporter in the country who covers its activities full time. And yet in the wake of this endless disaster, thanks to the energetic reporting of those institutions that are now on the job, we’ve learned, for instance, that the Minerals Management Service did not require oil companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in case of an emergency. No enforcement mechanisms existed at all. In recent years, regulators allowed the oil executives to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil, which were then traced over and submitted.

Free hunting and fishing trips, tickets to games, expensive meals were the norm at the Lake Charles office, all provided by the oil companies. Taking such gifts “appears to have been a generally accepted practice,” according to the department’s acting inspector general, Mary L. Kendall. Two years ago, one MMS employee undertook four inspections of platforms while in the process of negotiating the terms of his employment with that same company. Another was suspected of using crystal meth during his inspections. It’s no wonder that that the MMS collected only sixteen fines from the more than four hundred investigations of Gulf of Mexico drilling incidents over the past five years. The agency found roughly 200 violations of its regulations, but showed virtually no interest in pursuing any of them.

Meanwhile, as a result of this almost comically lax enforcement, BP executives felt no compunction in ignoring safety and environmental rules to which it was allegedly subject. One 2001 report found that the company paid little attention to the equipment it would need in the event of an emergency shutdown, equipment that might have prevented the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. It often fell back on the least expensive and less reliable deepwater well design—called “long string”—and did so far more frequently than its industry competitors. Another report, from 2004, discovered a pattern of company intimidation toward its employees who expressed uneasiness about its safety or environmental practices. California officials accused the company of falsifying its 2002 fuel tank inspections, adding that four of five of its storage facilities failed to meet proper standards. BP was forced to settle a lawsuit brought by the South Coast Air Quality Management District for over $100 million. In 2005, a Texas City refinery explosion cost fifteen lives, owing in part to a failed warning system that one report found consistent with practices at “all five U.S. refineries, not just Texas City.”

How many other agencies have declined to an MMS-like state?

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