EPA and NRC: Abolish both to really protect public safety

The New York Times recently revealed that as long ago as 1972 the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (precursor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) knew of fatal design defects in the General Electric nuclear reactors now gone critical in Japan, but instead of banning the design, they stamped it as “safe” for nearly four decades.

That jaw-dropping revelation caused me to reconsider recent Tea Party demands for the death of the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite my staunch environmentalism, I'm now willing to consider ridding us not only of the EPA, but also the NRC, and every federal regulatory agency irrevocably corrupted by big corporate influence.

This is my thinking: We might actually be safer if we eliminated all regulatory agencies and the false sense of security they provide. Agencies like NRC and EPA lull us with promises of environmental compliance, while conniving with big corporations to fast-track pet projects, as they shove horrific public safety risks under the regulatory rug.

The NRC case is damning: in 1972 a federal safety official eerily described the disaster now unfolding at Fukushima, saying that GE’s Mark I nuclear reactor presented an unacceptable safety risk and should be discontinued. His supervisor, Joseph Hendrie, nixed the idea, arguing that a ban could “well be the end of nuclear power.”

Like so many corporate-toadying Washington bureaucrats, Mr. Hendrie was rewarded for siding with industry over safety. He was made head of NRC! Now, 23 Mark I reactors are in service across the U.S. – with the same fatal engineering flaw built into every one.

As with NRC, so with EPA. Corruption has often turned EPA into a rubber-stamp for unsafe corporate projects and practices. Observe, for example, natural gas companies clamoring to drill thousands of new wells across the U.S. using a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The New York Times last month revealed that EPA has suppressed numerous studies showing fracking to be seriously harmful, but the agency has never acted on the danger.

Unpublished EPA studies concluded that radioactive wastewater from fracking operations cannot be fully diluted in waterways. But despite radioactivity levels sometimes hundreds of times higher than the maximum federal drinking water standard, EPA has not required frequent tests of such radioactive water before it goes into streams like Pennsylvania’s Delaware River, serving over 15 million people with drinking water.

As with NRC and EPA, so with the U.S. Mineral Management Service – renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management after its shameless, arguably illegal, performance in the lead-up to the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. MMS employees regularly rotated between the regulator and the big oil companies they were supposed to police (a common practice among corporations and agencies). Sexual misconduct, drug use, and graft marked MMS in the Bush administration, and misconduct continued during President Obama’s watch as billions in harm was done to the Gulf economy and environment by the BP disaster.

No matter where you look, you’ll find federal regulatory agencies in the same chummy relationship with big business. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is known for its close relationship with big water-polluters, like Occidental Chemical, and big shipping interests that support harbor dredging over ecological and public health concerns.

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management – an agency that is supposed to protect public resources – regularly offers ridiculously low leasing prices to big mining and drilling companies, allowing them to ravage our public lands.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture – like many federal regulators – often invites big industry to help write the environmental and safety rules used to regulate new products. So it was that agribusiness giant Monsanto was invited by the Bush administration to literally “cut-and-paste” its findings into the federal environmental assessment that resulted in the Obama administration approval of Monsanto’s controversial genetically engineered crop known as Roundup Ready alfalfa. Frankly, environmental protection is not served when industry spin substitutes for real science.

After 9/11, Americans understandably became obsessed with national security. Today, I’d argue that if you’re afraid for your children, don’t just urge government to hunt down Al-qaeda. Demand that it slam shut the revolving door between big corporations and regulatory agencies, and lift the veil of secrecy that conceals undue corporate influence. Most importantly, prosecute federal officials and corporate managers who subvert public safety and the common good in order to make rich corporations even richer.
Glenn Scherer is senior editor of Blue Ridge Press, a Virginia-based eco-article service.