Almost lost in the headlines after the Boston Marathon bombing was a tragedy that cost even more lives.
In the town of West, Texas, a massive fertilizer plant explosion killed 14 people and injured 200 more. It destroyed an apartment complex, damaged a school, collapsed a nursing home and leveled houses.
Why did the Boston tragedy claim the headlines? In part because terrorism makes people feel helpless. Stopping those who intend to do Americans harm is nearly impossible.
The Texas tragedy, on the other hand, was entirely preventable. It triggers less fear — even in a city like Decatur, with numerous chemical plants — because citizens know such tragedies can be avoided.
The primary tool the nation has in preventing industrial disasters is regulation. Market forces limit the frequency of corporate-caused tragedy by imposing a financial cost after the fact. As the nation saw with the explosion at West Fertilizer and the oil spill at BP and countless other disasters over the years, the market is imperfect in securing public safety. The desire for profit — or sometimes for financial survival — too often overwhelms the rational evaluation of risk.
Like the BP spill, the West Fertilizer explosion represented not just a market failure, but a failure in oversight. Either the regulations were too lax or enforcement was slack. The disaster should not have happened. Officials need to figure out what went wrong and make sure it does not happen again.
Political campaigns like the one last year oversimplify the issue of regulation. While it is true that regulatory control should be as streamlined as possible so as to reduce the cost to businesses, broad calls for deregulation are reckless.
In Alabama and many other states, political rhetoric suggests the greatest threat to the people is the federal government. Proposals to give the government more regulatory control over businesses — even chemical plants that deal in explosive fertilizer products — is seen as heresy. It’s a popular political argument that must seem strikingly lame to the people of West, Texas, right now.
In America, the government answers to the people. One of its highest missions is to protect the public. That duty applies both to terrorist attacks and to industrial accidents. It would be great if all corporate officials viewed protection of the public as an imperative that always outweighed profit. Sadly, that’s not how our economic system works.
Regulations are created by a government that answers to the people. While officials should constantly seek to minimize regulatory burdens, they must never forget the purpose of oversight. The profit motive of individuals cannot be allowed to jeopardize the safety of the public.
Regulatory control, demonized in political debate, is an essential function of the people’s government.